The University of South Carolina is located in Columbia, S.C., the capital of South Carolina with a population of almost 150,000 within the city and more than 800,000 when factoring in the surrounding counties.
The latest census figures have Tucson’s metropolitan area with a population of almost 1 million. Tucson can no longer be considered a college “town.” College “city” is more like it with the University of Arizona a primary attraction.
The South Carolina women’s basketball program had only 20 wins combined in the SEC in the five years before Olympic star and Hall of Famer Dawn Staley was hired in 2008-09. The average attendance for home games was about 1,800 when Staley took over the program that had only two NCAA tournament appearances in the previous 14 years.
Staley’s program is now a model for others who are trying to build from scratch, such as what Adia Barnes is trying to do at her alma mater, Arizona.
Staley and South Carolina’s marketing department instituted the “Drive for 5” program in 2013-14 as a way to honor her jersey number and induction into the Hall of Fame that year. The goal was to get South Carolina to an average attendance figure of at least 5,000. The Gamecocks surpassed that mark for the first time that season, Staley’s fifth year with the program.
Coincidentally, that occurred a season after South Carolina broke an eight-year NCAA tournament drought by reaching the Sweet 16 in 2011-12.
In the last four years, South Carolina has reached two Final Fours and won the national title in 2016-17. In that span, they have led the nation in attendance each season, including an average of 13,239 last year.
“I think you have to do the groundwork,” Staley told the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier in a 2014 article, a year before South Carolina made its first Final Four appearance. “People want to feel part of the program, even if it’s not a winning program. People want to feel that you’re a part of their community. They want to feel a part of our community, which is our team.
“I am a grass-roots person. So for me, it’s always in the back of my mind.”
Staley became a promoter as much as a coach when she started at South Carolina. The school viewed her as the most important element to drum up interest, especially through the rough start of 10-18, 14-15 and 18-15 in her first three seasons.
“It was about Dawn Staley, and how could we leverage this new rock star hire?” South Carolina associate athletic director for marketing Eric Nichols told the Post and Courier. “I hear stories of the lines for her autograph as soon as she got here were just out the door. It was just a matter of leveraging her rock star status.”
Adia Barnes — the best player in Arizona history and a former WNBA player — is the Wildcats’ rock star, no question about it. The school should market her that way. The school should go all out, leaving every stone unturned, much like South Carolina did to rally student involvement as well as community interest by going all over the Columbia area.
The Zona Zoo, so loud, packed and active during men’s games at McKale, is nonexistent for women’s games.
Where's the Zona Zoo? pic.twitter.com/wUHlCCkRtd
The announced attendance of 2,327 for today’s thriller of game at McKale Center — a three-overtime 98-93 loss to UCLA — was aided by the promotion of highlighting the heroes of the Tucson Police Department and Tucson Fire Department.
Promotions like that are the name of the game. Arizona needs more. Ask any minor-league baseball general manager who tries to get people in the seats.
The Wildcats, who are averaging 2,191 fans through 12 home games this season, have the potential for so much more if Barnes can continue to build a winner (the Wildcats are a respectable 14-6 overall and ranked No. 51 in the NCAA power ratings).
Fast and furious guard Aari McDonald — her first name is pronounced “airy” in case you didn’t know — is a potential All-American who can bring the casual fan into McKale Center. She scored 35 points against UCLA with 12 rebounds and seven assists. She made a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left in the second overtime to force a third overtime.
GAME FOR THE AGES. … McDonald nails a 3-pointer to send the game into a third OT! Game tied at 84. pic.twitter.com/pQgVTdG3fz
“I think when you win games you get more people, that’s the reality,” Barnes said after the game. “I think we have exciting players like Aari. People want to see her play. And (McDonald’s All-American) Cate (Reese). We have a young team and we return all five starters next year.
“So this base of Tucson … it’s a city of basketball. The U of A is the hottest thing in town, which is great. That’s what we always talk about with recruiting. This place has potential to have 5,000 to 7,000 people. I think sometimes when there is 2,500 it feels like it’s 5,000 or 6,000, so I’m really proud the city has backed us.”
The tide can turn if Barnes can not only get Arizona to the NCAA tournament but get to the Sweet 16 (this year or any soon) and build on it, showing unmatched success in the program’s history. The Wildcats have been to only seven NCAA tournaments and have reached the Sweet 16 only once — in 1998 when Joan Bonvicini’s team lost to Geno Auriemma and UConn by 17 points in Dayton, Ohio.
Arizona did not advance past the second round in its next five NCAA tournament appearances, the last in 2005. It’s been a long 14-year drought without an NCAA tournament appearance that has made women’s basketball a tough sell in Tucson.
Barnes was a member of that 1998 team that made it to the Sweet 16. She knows more than anybody what it takes to get back to that success.
“We are moving in the right direction,” she said. “Like I always say, ‘We’re not there yet.’ We’re not ready for a national championship or we’re not ready to win the Pac-12, but we’re ready to compete and surprise some people and we’re playing some pretty good basketball. Can it get better? Yes.
“But I hope the people see that we’re working to get better every single game. We do appreciate the fans. They are our sixth person, sixth player, sixth man. They are loud. Having them behind us gives us confidence at home. So that matters. Nights like tonight, those things matter because we do value the community. We appreciate them.”
When I asked Barnes if it is realistic to believe Arizona can match South Carolina’s success with its “Drive for 5” campaign during Staley’s formative years there, she said it is not an impossible dream.
Excitement at McKale with Arizona up 61-59 with 24.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter. UCLA ball after timeout. pic.twitter.com/nfvGgdO4gb
“I think (with) all the coverage we’re getting, it’s all positive things,” she added. “If you meet these players, not only are they good players, but they are good people. Those are the type of players we recruit. They’re the total package. I have five 4.0 (GPA) kids.
“They’re great in the community and I love it. I don’t have to force it. When people get to know our players they’ll be so attracted to them. They’ll want to bring their friends. They are pretty unique kids and they’re special kids.”
Barnes, who is a friend of Staley’s, then drew laughs from the media in the press conference when she jokingly asked, “Who’s going to start (the “Drive for 5″) here? You guys are the media. Come on. I need some help.”
“Having 5,000 fans makes a difference. People don’t realize how much it makes a difference,” she said. “It helps our players. It gives you momentum. It gives you confidence. You celebrate. You feed off the emotion so it’s important. So I think we should start the ‘Drive for Five’ or do something different. I think we have the potential to do that here.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.