Posted February 3, 2016
Last place does not usually bring positive connotation when it comes to some sports, and at UW-River Falls, attendance at athletic events has been abysmal this year.
Compared to other campuses in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC), average attendance at games in four of the seven major sports is last or second-to-last, according to data reported by the conference. The three sports that are not are both men’s and women’s hockey, and soccer.
The four sports that are last or second-to-last are women’s basketball, with an average attendance of 129; men’s basketball with an average of 195; football with 1,125 per game; and women’s volleyball with an average of 146.
The WIAC includes seven University of Wisconsin campuses besides River Falls: Eau Claire, La Crosse, Oshkosh, Platteville, Stevens Point, Stout (Menomonie) and Whitewater. UWRF, with about 5,900 undergraduate and graduate students, is the smallest school.
In any given year, a casual observer might not find the game attendance numbers unusual. However, two of the sports with low attendance are men’s and women’s basketball, both of which are currently in a tie for first place in the WIAC — a surprise given that preseason selections pegged the men’s team to finish fourth and the women’s team fifth in the conference.
Athletic Director Roger Ternes and the athletic department acknowledge the lack of attendance, but also know the teams that are performing during the winter months are exciting to follow.
“Our women’s basketball team is fun to watch,” Ternes said. “We were up 30 at the half against UW-La Crosse. Now they may not be a fun basketball game to see, but if you watch this team, they have some skills. As does both of our hockey teams, and as well as our men’s basketball team who was down 20 in the first half and won by five in regulation.”
Whatever the reasons students and community members do not attend games, Co-Sports and Information Director Amber Dohlman said that’s not how it was when she attended UWRF in early 2004.
“I don’t think there is that connection to the athletic teams like we had before,” she said, “and, yeah, we have not competed in all sports, but we’ve seen (that), with success, the men’s basketball team has had an increase in attendance. It all starts with those major sports. If the football team is good in the fall, it brings more excitement into the winter, and that hasn’t been the case in recent time.”
Connecting to the athletes and the sports is what being a fan has always been about. At UW-River Falls, Dohlman said, athletes and non-athletes don’t have a connection.
“When I went to UWRF, people were huge hockey fans because they wanted to hang out with the hockey guys,” Dohlman recalled. “The entertainment at the hockey games was at an all-time high. There were events like if the team got six goals, everyone got free ice cream. People felt connected and made it so they wanted to attend those events.”
Ternes and his staff don’t have a fool-proof outline to increase attendance at games, but know they can only do so much to get people at the athletic events.
“Making people as aware as we can about events (is) important, messaging people, but information about the games is out there,” he said. “We are in a culture where we receive things instantly, and email may not be instant enough for people. We don’t have the staff here to be everywhere, people have to go out and find it.” The Athletics Department has now seen two different associate athletic directors leave in consecutive years.
As the regular seasons wind down for winter sports at UW-River Falls, there is a chance that WIAC playoff games will be hosted at Karges Center or Hunt Arena. With lack of attendance, Ternes urges students to take advantage of the events they have already paid for and enjoy the successes of the winter sports teams while they can.
“The problem is going to be when we get to playoffs. The students will have to pay for that,” Ternes said. “They do not get in free anymore like they do during the regular season. They have already paid to see the games during the regular season with segregated fees.”
Dohlman noted that players and teams have a role in the attendance numbers, and that they can do more to get fans in seats.
“Even having more sports supporting each other, having the soccer team, or the football team supporting other sports, those are huge amounts of people that could support their fellow athletes,” she said.
In recent years, the Falcon Cup has grown into a competition between sports to see who can get the most percentage of players at other events.
Tradition is something Ternes would love to see at UW-River Falls, but knows traditions are hard to establish.
“Any traditions are started so long ago, some 75 plus years ago, and that would be great to have that here,” he said. “On occasion we have fans and alumni that are passionate, but the hard part is building that tradition from the ground up and keeping that consistently.”