Thirteen years after making a sizeable investment in women’s basketball, Fresno State is right back where it started.
With a postseason crowd at Save Mart Center (1,354 for a first-round WNIT victory over San Francisco) that could’ve fit comfortably into North Gym — which sat 1,551 before its bleachers were torn out during renovations.
Is that any kind of payoff?
Glancing around the sparsely filled arena Thursday night, you couldn’t help but wonder.
Until 13 years ago, Fresno State women’s basketball had scant history of success and even less fan interest. Stacy Johnson-Klein’s arrival in April 2002 changed all that.
Pretty, peroxide blonde, 6-foot (even taller in heels) and dressed like she stepped out of a fashion magazine, Johnson-Klein hit Fresno with all the force of an Oklahoma tornado. She spoke at functions and elementary schools, threw out first pitches and dropped pucks and appeared at every groundbreaking. She ventured into the middle of a boxing ring before a local fight — and didn’t seem to care if testosterone-fueled fans mistook her for one of the ring girls.
Plus, Johnson-Klein could coach. In her first season, she took a team that had gone 9-20 the year before (and 39-76 under her predecessor) and instantly transformed it into a 21-game winner.
With SMC scheduled to open the following year, the resurgence couldn’t have been better timed.
The reward for that quick turnaround was a trip to the WNIT, the program’s first postseason appearance since 1990. The opening game, against Santa Clara, drew 1,401 to North Gym.
Anticipating significantly more interest for the second-round contest against Oregon State, school officials moved the game to Selland Arena. Which until that point had been sole domain of the Bulldogs men.
Fresno State squeaked out a 58-57 victory in front of a whopping 4,507 fans, tripling the previous record crowd for women’s basketball, and afterward Johnson-Klein grabbed the public-address microphone.
“Thank you Fresno!” she yelled in a hoarse voice. “When I got here they told me no one would come. Look at this!”
The Johnson-Klein era soon unraveled, of course, and retelling that saga would require an HBO miniseries. Thus ends the history lesson. But make no mistake: Fresno State’s investment in women’s basketball began with her.
In the years since, the athletic department has gotten some return on that investment. Adrian Wiggins, a Johnson-Klein assistant, assumed the reins and enjoyed a seven-year run capped by five straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. Under Raegan Pebley, Wiggins’ successor, the Bulldogs went to two more.
The streak of seven consecutive NCAA Tournaments ended under first-year coach Jaime White, but it wasn’t like there was a huge drop-off. Fresno State still won 21 regular-season games.
Those are quality returns, no question. But when you look at attendance, it should also be abundantly clear all these years of racking up wins and tourney appearances did nothing to grow the fan base.
Now let’s give that 1,354 figure some context.
Friday night in Berkeley, that bastion of enlightened thinking, Cal hosted Wichita State in an NCAA Tournament opener at 11,877-seat Haas Pavilion. Only 2,079 turned out.
This is Cal’s eighth NCAA appearance since 2006. Two years ago, the Golden Bears went to the Final Four. Still don’t draw.
Monday night, the Bulldogs will be in Moraga for a second-round WNIT game against Saint Mary’s.
Were the Gaels picked to host because they pack 3,500-seat McKeon Pavillion? No, not exactly. Attendance for Friday’s first-round win over Hawaii was a paltry 279.
So the Bulldogs are hardly alone. Besides a few rare cases, women’s basketball does not draw large crowds or generate athletic department revenue.
Yet if you examine the raw numbers, Fresno State seems to fancy its program as such. Despite an overall athletic budget of $33 million that ranked eighth in the Mountain West Conference in 2013-14, only two schools (San Diego State and Colorado State) spent more on women’s basketball.
Fresno State ($2.01 million) spent more on women’s hoops than New Mexico ($1.99M), which has an overall athletic budget of $44 million. It spent more than UNLV ($1.49M), which has an athletic budget of $63 million. It spent $750,000 more than Boise State and Nevada and nearly $900,000 more than Utah State.
That’s what I mean by investment, and not just for one year. When compared to money spent on other Bulldogs programs, women’s basketball has enjoyed favorite-sibling status for nearly a decade.
Not for a second am I suggesting Athletic Director Jim Bartko redistribute the wealth. That would be neither feasible, nor advisable. His challenge will be to make the pie bigger.
But try to imagine the Bulldogs men going to seven straight NCAA Tournaments, then the following year playing a home game in the NIT.
What would attendance be? Guessing it would be a lot more than 1,354 — or the 4,279 fans Fresno State averaged in three College Basketball Invitational games last March.
When Bartko says, “We need football and men’s basketball to win,” he isn’t slighting anyone. Just living in reality.
Thirteen years ago, Fresno State made an investment in women’s basketball.
Has it paid off?
Guess that depends on what you use for a measuring stick.