- - Thursday, March 1, 2018

College basketball referee Dee Kantner stood near midcourt on a recent Friday afternoon, during a break between the first and second quarters at McDonough Arena at Georgetown University.

When Kantner, one of the first female officials in the NBA, blew her whistle to signal the start of the second quarter it wasn’t very difficult for the fans in attendance to hear the sound. The crowd was just 229 onlookers in a Big East women’s contest between the host Hoyas and Seton Hall.

March Madness is just around the corner and the men’s NCAA tournament will rake in millions of dollars for the NCAA and TV, with millions of fans watching the games despite the ongoing FBI investigation into a bevy of possible infractions involving coaches and perhaps student-athletes.

Meanwhile, with several women’s Division I programs in the D.C. area, there is a balance between wanting to put more fans in the seats with the acceptance that many hoop fans, notably males, want to see high-flying dunks — which is almost unheard of at the women’s level.

“I hope there is a push to improve (attendance). My opinion and feeling on that is I think in college basketball we have to identify the student body more, especially in the D.C. area,” said James Howard, the Georgetown women’s coach. “Our conference games are on Friday and Sunday. It is hard for a lot of people to get home and get their kids and get here (on Friday night). We have to do a better job of identifying (possible) fans in the student body. They don’t have to drive to get here. On Sundays it works well. Families can go to church and worship and can come out” for matinee starts.

An NCAA report in 2016 revealed 89 percent of Division I women’s basketball players graduated in a six-year span. The rate was 74 percent for all female Division I athletes and 59 percent for men.

“I am very thankful for that. They are true student-athletes,” said American University coach Megan Gebbia. “You know they are doing that for the right reason.”

But the Georgetown women, who play on Sunday in the Big East Tournament, averaged 678 fans in 12 home dates this season at on-campus McDonough Gymnasium while the men have drawn 7,651 fans in their first 18 home dates at the Capital One Arena.

The American women, who won the Patriot League regular-season title, drew an average of just 387 fans to Bender Arena while the AU men attracted 761. The women host a Patriot League semifinal game March 8.

The George Washington women averaged 784 fans through Feb. 26, while the men had drawn 2,660 to The Smith Center.

At George Mason, the women averaged 859 fans in regular-season play while the men have drawn 3,975 fans per contest.

Nationally-ranked Maryland is the one exception among local women’s programs. The Terps, who play Friday in the Big Ten Tournament, attracted 5,537 fans per game this season, and the Maryland and American women could be the only local schools in March Madness.

George Mason graduate standout Natalie Butler certainly has experienced extremes in attendance during her career, which began at Georgetown and then included two seasons at NCAA power Connecticut. The Huskies drew an average of more than 10,000 fans this season.

“It is definitely tough,” said Butler, a Lake Braddock High graduate, of seeing the men get more attention. “We put in the same amount of time and saw amount of hours (as men). Not a lot of women can go out there and dunk. When you go to a men’s game that is expected; that brings in fans and money.”

Butler said she has no problems with how the George Mason athletic department promotes the women’s program, which set a single-season record for wins with 22 on Feb. 24. But the daughter of former Navy men’s standout Vernon Butler just wishes her sport attracted more attention.

“It is a tough topic to talk about,” said Butler, who is the country’s top rebounder. “There is no single (female) athlete out there who doesn’t put in the time (to train). It does come down to personal choice for the fans. We have to be good role models so we can have little girls come to our games and look up to us.”

Butler was named the Atlantic 10 player of the year on Thursday. She is averaging 18.7 points and 16.4 rebounds per contest going into Friday’s Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals game against George Washington in Richmond.

Jennifer Rizzotti, the second-year coach at George Washington, knows all about the UConn prestige. She was an All-American guard for the Huskies and is a women’s college basketball Hall of Famer.

She admitted she has not had the time to implement some ideas that she has to increase attendance, after coming to GW after 17 years as the head coach at Hartford.

“We can do a better job in the future,” she said.

Many women’s basketball programs have at least one weekday game per season that starts around 11 a.m. in an effort to attract elementary school students.

“It is a neat thing to be able to do that,” said Mason coach Nyla Milleson. “For the most part the women’s game tends to attract young kids and senior citizens.”

But Milleson said it is hard not to be envious of the men’s attendance figures. She recalls being at a Mason men’s game that drew about 8,000 fans. “Gosh, if we just could get a quarter of this every game,” she thought.

“There is definitely a sense of ‘why don’t students come to our games?’” Rizzotti said.

“I think I get more frustrated with the student body. The sense of community: that is what we are trying to figure out,” said Gebbia, who grew up in Frederick, Maryland.

Howard, who grew up in The District, said the home fans can serve as motivation.

“If we do get a good crowd it gives them confidence to play a little harder,” he said. “But getting them in the seats is a challenge.”

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