Utah women’s basketball has a huge weekend ahead. Can the Utes draw a crowd at the Huntsman Center?

Eighth-ranked Utes host No. 3 Stanford Saturday with the Pac-12 regular-season title potentially up for grabs.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Issy Palmer (1) and Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen (24) celebrate Palmer's half court shot to end the first half as Utah hosts Washington, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.

Utah basketball coach Lynne Roberts knows her team is wading through uncharted waters.

She’s just waiting for the dam to break.

The University of Utah women’s basketball team has been ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 for the last two months, currently sitting at No. 8. The Utes are 23-3 overall, 13-3 in conference play.

Now, the biggest women’s basketball game in the country on Saturday is being played at the Huntsman Center, where the Utes are a perfect 12-0 this season. Utah remains alive for its first Pac-12 regular-season championship, and No. 3 Stanford is coming to town Saturday. The Utes, who will first host Cal on Thursday, trail Stanford by one game and will host the Cardinal in the regular season finale Saturday.

But while enjoying one of the best seasons in program history, Roberts and the Utes haven’t seen one key metric go as high as they would like: attendance.

“It’s my hope, and my plea, and my charge to Salt Lake City to come out,” Roberts said Tuesday, while flanked by three of her players. “This is a fun group to watch, it’s an exciting style. They’ve earned it. We’re 23-3. Both games, we’re playing for a shot to win a championship in the Pac-12. That’s something that has never been done here, so I’m hopeful. I think there’s been a swell of excitement, but we still need that watershed moment where it just kind of breaks. I’m hoping that’s this weekend.”

Trying to draw for Stanford

In some Pac-12 markets, a game of this magnitude would certainly draw a crowd. Arizona has an average attendance of 7,679 to lead the conference this season. Oregon’s is 6,201.

Utah is announcing an average of 2,415 fans through 12 home games. That’s up from 1,982 a year ago. But it stands to reason this particular team — which is among the national leaders in scoring offense, scoring margin and 3-point field goal percentage — should be drawing more.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah bench celebrates a three-pointer as Utah hosts Washington, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.

One problem that may be a little more specific to this market is that the Pac-12 plays games on Sundays, which are often reserved here for winter recreational activities, and religion.

“Sunday games are certainly a challenge for any of our sports in this market, but I think what we’ve seen is just getting people in the door and getting people to experience this team, this game, the way that they play, the passion Coach Roberts coaches with and how that translates to the players on the court,” Sean Farrell, Utah’s associate athletic director for sales and development, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Once you come and experience that for yourself, I think you’re in.”

Added Roberts: “The Sunday thing is a challenge. It’s because of TV, that’s when our games are on. People like to ski on their weekends, or Sunday is a family day, a church day, and I respect all of that, but it doesn’t make it any less challenging. Friday night games, we’ve done pretty well, and truthfully, Sundays this season have improved a lot. That’s just one of the variables, and it’s interesting, because in some Pac-12 communities, Sundays are their best day, but not here.”

How to overcome the Sunday factor is more of a long-range issue that can be dealt with next season. The good news is that Stanford is visiting on Saturday, but the question remains how to get people in the door.

Once the women’s team reached No. 4 in the AP Top 25, its highest ranking ever, the athletic department began offering $4 tickets for these final two home games.

Beyond that, this is a high-profile weekend for the Huntsman Center’s three primary winter tenants. Aside from the two women’s games with a potential Pac-12 title on the line, the men host No. 4 UCLA on Thursday and USC on Saturday, while the fourth-ranked gymnastics team hosts No. 6 Cal on Friday night. Per Farrell, an email promoting a five-event ticket bundle across the three nights went out to the entire ticketing database earlier this week.

With a women’s-men’s dual-admission doubleheader taking place on both Thursday and Saturday, and with the desire to have the 8,500-seat as full as possible, a few more interesting tactics may very well help.

Fans can use their men’s tickets to redeem a ticket for the women’s games ahead of the men. Single-game ticket holders for women’s games are also able to redeem an upper bowl general admission ticket for the men’s game to follow. The Utah ticket office has automatically loaded women’s tickets onto accounts for men’s season-ticket holders and vice versa for those with women’s basketball season tickets.

Can women’s basketball draw here long term?

As Roberts goes in search of that elusive watershed moment for her program, something that will allow her program to be viewed in a different light, there are two realistic options.

A win over Stanford, which is 31-1 all-time against Utah, would mark a significant breakthrough, not to mention keep the Utes in play for an NCAA Tournament 1-seed going into the Pac-12 Tournament.

Utah Utes vs. Arizona Wildcats at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, UT on Sunday, January 15, 2023. Eli Rehmer/Utah Athletics

As it stands, the Utes could be in line for a top-2 seed in the NCAA tournament, which would allow them to host first- and second-round games at the Huntsman Center. Hosting a four-team NCAA Tournament pod would bring increased national attention not only to the Utes, but to women’s basketball both locally and regionally.

The women’s tournament has held first and second-round games on campus since 2015. The Huntsman Center has hosted the men’s tournament 15 times, including the famous 1979 national championship game between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State and Larry Bird’s Indiana State, but it has never hosted the women’s tournament.

Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, Utah has not only taken tangible steps forward, but it has done so without a senior on the roster. Players jumping into the NCAA Transfer Portal is always a concern, but the Utes project to again be a Pac-12 contender and a threat to go deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Will that be enough to get a crowd to get a consistent crowd to the Huntsman Center?

“It is exciting, and it sort of takes some pressure off in a good way,” Roberts said. “Not that we’re not motivated, but sometimes seniors put pressure on themselves where it’s like ‘This is it if I don’t do it.’ I think there’s a bit of a pressure release that way, which is effective when you’re coming into tournament play. I’m really excited what this month could be like for women’s basketball in Salt Lake City, and then the next few years as we just continue to build it.”

Added Farrell: “I think this season we’ve seen a lot of people who haven’t been to women’s basketball games before or maybe haven’t been in a while coming back and experiencing the way this team plays and how exciting it is. I think we have a lot of single-game buyers that we can market to and we certainly plan to do that this offseason, and continuing to do our part to support the trajectory Coach Roberts has this program on. That’s important to us.

“I think it’s marketing to those single-game buyers, taking advantage of what we anticipate to be a deep tourney run, getting season-ticket renewals out during that time. We are thinking about that, and we’ll almost certainly have a very good roster again next year. It is important we capitalize on the current success and ensure they have the kind of support from the start of next season that they’ve had this year.”