The roar can be deafening, as a sea of blue and yellow seems to rise as one, the record crowd stomping and screaming as they cheer on the Jackrabbit women’s basketball team at a home game.
The fervor for women’s basketball is a legend across South Dakota, and now nationally as teams from colleges across the state continue to draw record crowds, surprising the out-of-state spectators and lifting the players with the energy, enthusiasm and support the sport garners here.
“I try to make sure our players take a step back and appreciate it when we’re setting attendance records (in the Premier Center),” said USD coach Amy Williams. “Whether they go on to play (after college) or their careers are over, they probably won’t ever have another experience like that.”
Earlier this month, the Summit League and the Sioux Falls Sports Authority announced that the Summit League Basketball Championships will remain in the city through 2022. The tournaments have drawn record crowds here since coming in 2009. And later this month, SDSU will honor 50 years of women in sports, including giving letters to well-deserving pioneering female athletes.
Going to games is a tradition that starts in high school, and then continues, with college rosters made up largely of local players, doubleheaders that pair the women’s and the men’s games, and, above all, teams that are fun to watch and know how to win.
The women’s Summit League tournament averaged nearly 6,100 fans per game in its first year at the Denny Sanford Premier Center earlier this year. It was the second-most attended women’s conference tournament in the nation — and the crowd of nearly 8,200 who watched SDSU beat Denver in the quarterfinals was the largest women’s conference crowd of the season — anywhere.
Even in bigger cities and bigger arenas, it’s not always like that.
“Sometimes we’ll go play an SEC team, or a Big 12 team, and we might be playing in front of 100 people in an arena that seats 16,000,” says SDSU coach Aaron Johnston. “So what we tell people when we’re recruiting is that whether it’s Division I, Division II or NAIA, there’s a special following for women’s basketball in our area.”
50 years of SDSU women’s athletics
The attendance numbers are strong across divisions in the state.
— Jackrabbit women averaged 2,101 per game at Frost Arena, leading the Summit League and more than doubling the conference average of 898.
— USD was second in the Summit League with 1,568 fans per game, a handful more than the national Division I average.
— In Division II, Northern State averaged 2,758 fans, ranking them No. 1 nationally.
— Augustana University was fourth nationally, with 2,051 fans per game.
— Dakota Wesleyan, an NAIA school in Mitchell, regularly drew more than 2,000 fans to their women’s games last year. And while USF didn’t draw to the level of their in-state NSIC counterparts at Augie and Northern, the Cougar women regularly play in front of crowds the same size or bigger than the USF men.
“There’s such a history of success in collegiate women’s basketball in our area, and that makes it fun to follow,” Johnston said. “There haven’t always been the other things that go on, so it was covered by the media in a different way than in any other region, so women’s basketball was always just in people’s minds – they were aware of it. That just doesn’t happen in other places. All that success combined with talent, with the support of the fans and media has just sort of put us on everyone’s radar, and it’s just continued to grow.”
Marie Malloy is from a family of hoops junkies. Like her siblings, Matt and Maggie, Marie was a standout at Parkston, and she followed in their footsteps to USF.
“I remember as a kid going to the Parkston Classic and the Hanson Classic and the gym would just be packed,” Malloy said. “It made me so excited to someday play in those games, and when I did it was just really, really cool.”
Not every gym Malloy played in as a prepster was full, but it wasn’t until she moved to college when she realized how unique the support is in her home state.
“You really notice it when you go to some places that don’t have fans and the gym is just dead and we have to create our own energy,” Malloy said. “It really makes us grateful for the fans we have at home.”
That’s a recruiting tool coaches can use to lure players, and it builds on itself. Most agree the local flavor on women’s rosters strengthens the ties between fans and players.
“You come to SDSU and USD and Augie and those places and we have such great fan support, then you go on the road and a lot of times we have more fans than they do on their home court,” said SDSU guard Gabby Boever. “As a player you definitely recognize and appreciate that. And being in small communities you’re able to develop relationships, too. I go to Hy-Vee and somebody will be like, ‘Hey, Gabby, great game’, and I usually know who they are. That’s a cool thing, to know the people who support us.”
That’s not a point to be overlooked.
“I think across the country when you look at how the WNBA markets itself, it’s about relationships,” Johnston says. “Women’s basketball is a family type of sport where people feel like they get to know the athletes, and how they feel about them can have as much to do with how they follow them as winning and losing.”
History of support
Before USD and SDSU made the move to Division I, they were in the Division II North Central Conference, when schools scheduled doubleheaders where the women would play first, and the men immediately after. There’s no doubt that exposure to the women’s teams built the fan base in the early days of women’s college basketball in South Dakota.
“I heard that a lot for a number of years from people who didn’t really follow the women’s game much,” longtime Augustana coach Dave Krauth said. “Once they ended up coming early a time or two to catch some of the women’s game they developed a real interest. Hopefully we can keep doing that. The publicity our men’s team figures to get this year (the Augie men are ranked No. 1 in Division II) could bring us more fans. We hope they see our game and say, ‘Hey, I kind of like this.'”
The NSIC still plays doubleheaders, but the Summit League does not. SDSU and USD try to schedule doubleheaders on their own whenever they can in hopes of keeping the tradition alive.
“A lot of men’s teams have more fans, and if you can introduce those fans to good women’s basketball, people who enjoy basketball are going to become women’s basketball fans,” Johnston said. “I’m glad we still do some doubleheaders, but it’s amazing how some places just don’t embrace it. They act like it’s an intro game, or a warm-up or something, but people here don’t look at it that way”
The Summit League is an example of success. By combining the men’s and women’s tournaments in one place, the conference has been regularly blowing away its own attendance records year after year. Does the men’s tournament drive that? Sure. But the women remain a huge part of it. The conference and Sioux Falls Sports Authority exercised their option to keep the tournament in Sioux Falls through 2022 just last week, and the city’s run of hosting the women’s Division II championships got off to a strong start last spring. Thanks to South Dakota’s support of women’s basketball, those teams aren’t complaining about coming back.
“The support for women’s basketball up there is unbelievable,” said Denver coach Kerry Cremeans, who played at Florida and was an assistant at Purdue. “Our team enjoys so much getting the chance to play in that environment in front of all those people. It’s really something special.”
Follow Matt Zimmer on Twitter @argusmattz.