Utah women’s basketball attendance is on the rise, but Utes see room for growth

The Utes host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament at the Huntsman Center.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans cheer on Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen (24), in PAC-12 women's basketball action between Utah Utes and California Golden Bears, at the Jon M. Jon M. Huntsman Center, Thursday, February. 23, 2022.

Friends Shelby Terrio and Corey Romano fell in love with the University of Utah women’s basketball team at the tail end of last season, when the Utes advanced to the Pac-12 Championship game and the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

As a result, Terrio, an electrician, and Romano, a special education teacher at Woods Cross High, started attending Utes games more regularly this season. Whatever happens to the Utes now in the NCAA Tournament, which begins this week, Terrio and Romano have seen enough to know one thing.

“After coming this season, I’m going to be getting season tickets for life,” Terrio said. “For real. This is awesome. I love it.”

Buzz around the Utah women’s program has been steadily building since the beginning of this season, buoyed by coach Lynne Roberts vocally calling for more Salt Lake City residents to support the team and attend games. Average attendance per game this season backs that up.

The Utes averaged 3,025 fans per game this season. That’s up more than 50% compared to last season, when Utah averaged 1,982 fans per game, per data collected by the NCAA. The team’s highest-attended game was the regular-season finale against Stanford, when 9,611 people showed up.

Players have certainly felt the difference throughout the season, and said the crowd’s energy impacts their play on the court.

“I honestly, even growing up most times, never really would play in front of a big crowd unless it was like a big championship game or something like that,” forward Alissa Pili said. “So just the fact that our fans are consistent and the way it’s grown over time, from the beginning of the season to now, it’s been super cool to be a part of. It helped us a lot in games — the energy and the atmosphere and all that.”

Anna Thompson, who graduated from the U., has been a fan of the women’s team for several years. But this season was the first that she and her family bought season tickets after closely following the team’s NCAA Tournament run last year.

Thompson described the experience of attending a women’s basketball game as “incredible” — from the fan support to the in-arena announcer to the coaches and players engaging with the community during games. She also said women’s sports are on the rise lately, specifically mentioning the health of the WNBA and National Women’s Soccer League, and the popularity of skier Mikaela Shiffrin.

“The time is right to be here for this and we’re peaking at exactly the right time,” Thompson said. “The program that Lynne is building with the support of Mark Harlan and the administration here is one that is gonna be strong for decades. You can feel it. They’re doing it right.”

When Roberts was informed that there are fans of her team who became first-time season ticket holders this season, she said that felt “extremely gratifying.” But in no way is she satisfied with the growth of her team. She wants more.

“It’s something that I want to keep building on,” Robert said. “And next year’s season tickets, I’m hoping to triple what we’ve done in the past and continue to grow it.”

Sophomore guard Kennady McQueen said that once people go to one of their games, “I would say nine out of 10 times they want to come back.” Terrio and Romano are two examples of that.

“I have football season tickets, baseball season tickets,” Romano said. “And now, I’m going to have women’s basketball.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.