Sign of success: attendance soaring for UA women’s basketball

Winning games is vital to the success of any coach.  But at the college level there is another key to his/her continued employment, especially when it’s a major sport that is counted on for box-office revenue.

In other words, putting fannies in the seats is almost as important as winning.

At the University of Arizona, Adia Barnes is doing both, five years after taking over the women’s basketball program at her alma mater.  And fan interest in women’s basketball in Tucson is through the roof.  Attendance figures can attest to that.

The Wildcats were averaging 2,400 fans for a home game the year before Barnes took the reins of the Pac-12 program.  Attendance actually dropped during her first season as the Arizona faithful took a wait-and-see attitude, waiting for her to prove that she could turn around a program that has been stuck in mediocrity for the last decade.

Attendance dropped to 1,902 a game in her first season, the 2016-17 school year.

But Wildcat nation has evidently seen enough now to be convinced.  The school just announced that season ticket sales have exceeded 4,800.  And there’s still almost three months before the 2021-22 season tips off with its first game, plenty of time to grow those numbers.

Barnes wrapped up her first season with a losing record of 14-16 and just five conference wins.  And Season 2 was even worse, as the 2017-18 squad won just six games altogether, and two in Pac-12 play.

But Wildcat Nation hung with the Cats during that disappointing season, due largely to the  play of a crowd-pleasing 5’6″ point guard named Aari McDonald who played an exciting brand of hoops that continued bringing the fans out to see more.

In Barnes’ second season, the 2018-19 team began turning things around, winning 24 games.  But there was still work to be done; the Cats went 7-11 in the rugged Pac-12 conference.  In the 2019-20 season, they showed they were becoming consistent winners, finishing that campaign with 24 wins again and, more importantly, showed they could compete in conference play, going 12-6.

Attendance soared to a 3,174 average per game at McKale Center.  The fan base was invigorated.

But disappointment came suddenly when the pandemic shut down the postseason.  Barnes and her squad of overachievers were unable to finish a very promising season.

Maybe that gave them the incentive they needed to put together a trip into the history books last season.  After posting the third straight 20-win season (21-6) and winning 13 conference games, the Wildcats, who came into the 2020-21 season with a No. 7 national ranking, went deeper into the NCAA Tournament than any UofA women’s team before them.

It was apparent why McDonald decided against entering the WNBA to play her senior season for Barnes.  She sensed the program was on the brink of something special, but she knew it was important for her to be there to lead the way.  (That extra year paid huge dividends; she was selected third overall by the Atlanta Dream in the April WNBA draft.)

Last year’s group became the first UofA women’s basketball team to reach the Elite Eight, and then shocked the college world after wining five straight games to earn the right to meet Stanford for the NCAA title.  Arizona came within six seconds of winning that national title when McDonald was hemmed in by the Stanford defense and missed a long, off-balance shot with 6.1 seconds on the clock to lose a thriller to the Cardinal, 53-54.

The Wildcats are riding high after three 20-win seasons and a chance to play for the national title.  But there may be a fall coming.

Aari McDonald, the Energizer bunny who led the team in scoring the last three years (a school-record 21.9 career ppg),  won’t be around next season.

And finding a replacement for an All-American guard that had two straight 30-point games on the way to the NCAA title game won’t be easy.

But that’s what Barnes may have to do to get another shot at a national title.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)