In the stead of a UCSB football team, Gaucho basketball is king in Santa Barbara during Winter Quarter. The Thunderdome is rocking with 2,500 fans rooting the 12th-ranked women’s basketball team on to its ninth straight Big West Championship. Dissect that attendance figure a bit, though, and observe that maybe 200 of them are UCSB students.
Student support of UCSB sports, especially women’s basketball, has been terribly lacking, given the success of many of our 19 NCAA Division I programs at UCSB. Despite this prosperity, UCSB is not a sports school and nobody decides to attend UCSB expecting to be drenched with sports spirit and tailgater’s fever. Does Santa Barbara spend more time publicizing its outstanding volleyball, soccer and basketball programs, or its three Nobel Prizes in chemistry?
UCSB men’s basketball is traditionally the best draw for students every year. Essentially, it’s UCSB’s version of a top-notch football squad. It costs $5 to join the Gaucho Locos, get a yellow shirt and ruthlessly heckle teams like USC into promising never to set foot in the T-Dome again. Superb student attendance at men’s basketball games boosts the program’s performance by adding to home-court advantages at the T-Dome.
Conversely, the women’s program has flat-out dominated the Big West for nearly a decade, yet the student component of the audience is much less than such success has warranted. Gender is an issue in this case, and Gaucho women’s basketball is a highly successful program that somehow fails to draw students. Although it does an excellent job attracting members of the Santa Barbara community, it has not commanded the same passion from the student populace. After last year’s switch to a mirrored schedule for conference play, the men’s and women’s teams play the same school on the same night. This means one team competes at home while the other is away. There is no other explanation for the continued lack of student support for the women’s program. It is no longer a choice between seeing the men play tonight or the women another night.
“Our culture hasn’t yet caught up with Title IX and similar ideas,” UCSB women’s basketball Head Coach Mark French said. “People support winners, but most students still think it isn’t cool to support a women’s team.”
Despite a perplexing sense of student apathy toward women’s basketball, other UCSB sports seem to be putting together growing crowds as seasons pass and programs improve. UCSB men’s soccer, for example, drew 3,400 fans to Harder Stadium for its first-ever NCAA appearance last year, and has two consecutive conference titles and a renovated field on its side for maintaining the trend.
UCSB women’s volleyball also seems to be immune from the sting of student snubs, drawing three crowds last season that ranked in UCSB’s all-time top 10, including a record showing of over 4,200 at a pivotal game against Big West rival Long Beach State last October.
“I think we get great support,” junior libero Kristin Nelson said. “I don’t think anyone on the team would complain about the number of students who come out.”
UCSB baseball, though, is one of the sports that does not draw well for a number of reasons. The most glaring answer is that it does not put enough W’s to draw the fair-weather fans into the bleachers. Unfortunately for the squad, winning has always proven to be an integral part of building large crowds and an eventual fan base. Secondly, the early weekend afternoon game times also contribute to lack of students in attendance, as some students aren’t even awake when baseball games are being played.
“When we’re a .500 ball club, we draw average,” UCSB Baseball Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “It’s difficult when we play half our season in the shadow of basketball, but we still need to win to attract bigger crowds.”
Strong sports programs put colleges on the map and increase name recognition. The average person knows about USC’s nationally-ranked football team, not about its excellence in researching gerontology. The quickest route to making UCSB a household name and making that diploma you’re working for worth more is through the sports program, and students can help the sports program achieve more fame by showing interest in it.
“Sports influences [prospective college students], and they probably make the diploma more valuable and worthwhile,” French said. “Is that a sick part of our society? Maybe. But it makes for good name recognition.”
Student attendance is largely responsible for the increase in publicity that the men’s basketball program and the University have received in the recent rise to power in the Big West. When the men’s team earned a berth in the 2002 NCAA Tournament and faced basketball powerhouse Arizona on national television, CBS fell in love with the Fantom of the Dome and the raucous Gaucho Locos. If the women’s basketball team got comparably significant airtime on national television, a crowd shot would reveal a few students sprinkled amongst a lot of thirty- and forty-somethings and other members of the community. While the women’s program puts nearly as many fans in the bleachers as does the men’s team in terms of raw numbers, the media is much quicker to jump on the story of the rabid student supporters. Having crazy college kids in the stands will bring the school more media recognition and notoriety than having middle-aged, though loyal, supporters.
College football is obviously the most publicized of college sports, and UCSB can’t put up a fight in that department. No football team has called Harder Stadium home since 1992. That means no glamorous Homecoming, no parades, no holiday bowl games and no tailgating.
Yet, it doesn’t have to mean no fame and fortune for UCSB athletics. It’s up to the students to support Gaucho sports and help the rest of the sports-conscious world to recognize what’s here in Santa Barbara. Attending UCSB sporting events is a free, fun and easy way to help boost the value of a UCSB diploma, watch quality athletic competition, act rowdy, and meet other students. It all starts with women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer in the fall, three very successful programs that are worth your time and effort to support.