In a season they will almost certainly finish with fewer league victories than any team Lorenzo Romar has ever coached, a funny thing is happening at Washington Huskies home games.
People are attending them.
Three Pac-12 programs have seen a significant increase in home attendance this season: UCLA, which possesses a 23-3 record and is ranked No. 6 in the country; Oregon, which is 22-4 and ranked No. 7; and, to a smaller degree, Washington, which is 9-17 overall and 2-12 in league play and has lost eight consecutive games.
Arizona State has seen a more modest increase of 63 fans per game. Every other conference team lists an average attendance lower than what it was a year ago (even Arizona, which regularly sells out the 14,545-seat McKale Center, is averaging 150 fewer fans per game this season).
The Huskies drew an average of 6,785 fans per home game last season, when they won 19 games and played in the National Invitation Tournament. This year, despite owning a far worse record, they’re averaging 7,614 for a per-game increase of 829. That figure includes a sellout of their Feb. 4 loss to UCLA — the first sellout at Hec Edmundson Pavilion since the 2011-12 season — and the school is expecting another sellout, or at least close to it, for the Huskies’ home finale at 5 p.m. Saturday against No. 5 Arizona.
(If you’re curious: UCLA’s attendance is up from 8,073 last year to 10,652 this year, and Oregon is up from 7,467 to 9,740.)
So, how are the Huskies doing it? It doesn’t hurt that in spite of their record, star freshman guard Markelle Fultz is leading the league in scoring and is projected as the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. No matter how bad the Huskies have played as a team, Fultz’s presence will always be a draw.
“I’m sure Markelle helps with that,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said.
But Roy Shick, UW’s senior associate athletic director for external affairs, says the increase might also be due to more strategic — and successful — marketing efforts.
For example, Shick, who was hired in July by athletic director Jen Cohen, said the school sold about 550 more partial-plan packages than it did last year. Included among those options: a half-game plan that focused on weekend games — selling tickets to 8 p.m. weekday games remains a riddle for most everyone, Shick said — a six-game plan that focused on “big games,” and a few “pick ‘em” plans, too.
Shick also credits the hires of Rob Kristiniak, the school’s associate athletic director for ticket sales and service, and Brian Bowsher, the department’s chief marketing officer, along with a “deeper level of integration between our marketing and sales groups.”
“Those guys have worked in aggressive markets before. They understand looking at different product and how we need to be positioned better,” said Shick, who worked in advancement for UW’s athletic department from 2008-14 prior to a two-year stint at Texas. “I think the alignment and the goal was thinking about new product, and how do we get fans engaged? Let’s step back and make some entry points available for people to get in.”
Group ticket sales have helped, too, Shick said, as well as the department’s ability to more specifically focus its digital marketing, as opposed to what he described as a “shotgun” philosophy in years past.
The UW has also mixed in promotions via Strideline (free socks at the UCLA game), BECU (beanies) and Starbucks (free fan-appreciation tumblers at Saturday’s game against Arizona).
All of that has combined to produce a few statistics that don’t align with the product on the court. The Huskies are worse than they’ve been at any point in the last 15 years, yet their attendance this season will be the highest it’s been since 2012-13, Shick said, and they are on track for their 13th-best season, attendance-wise, in the last 40 years.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I’m just really pleased,” Romar said. “Really pleased with our support and our fans that have stuck with us this year. We only have one left, so they’ve been pretty consistent.”
WASHINGTON (9-17, 2-12 PAC-12) VS. NO. 5 ARIZONA (24-3, 13-1)
5 p.m., Hec Edmundson Pavilion
TV: ESPN2. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
All-time series: Arizona leads, 51-28.
Statistics for 2016-17:
0 Parker Jackson-Cartwright, G (5-11, jr.): 5.3 ppg, 4.3 apg.
35 Allonzo Trier, G (6-5, so.): 13.0 ppg, 5.4 apg.
1 Rawle Alkins, G (6-5, fr.): 11.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg.
10 Lauri Markkanen, F (7-0, fr.): 15.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg.
14 Dusan Ristic, C (7-0, jr.): 11.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg.
20 Markelle Fultz, G (6-4, fr.): 23.0 ppg, 5.9 apg, 5.9 rpg.
1 David Crisp, G (6-0, so.): 14.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg.
4 Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, so.): 9.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg.
15 Noah Dickerson, F (6-8, so.): 11.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg.
33 Sam Timmins, F (6-11, fr.): 3.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg.
Scouting report: Washington was surprisingly competitive with the powerful Wildcats when these teams met in Tucson on Jan. 29. Arizona eventually won, 77-66, but the Huskies led at halftime and remained within two possessions late in the second half before Arizona pulled away. … Fultz returned to UW’s lineup in Thursday’s loss to Arizona State after missing two games due to a sore knee. He played 30 minutes in that game — five fewer than his season average — and will likely be on a minute-limit against Arizona, UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. … The Wildcats are a little beat-up. Senior guard Kadeem Allen, who defended Fultz well in the first game, missed Thursday’s game at Washington State after dislocating his pinky during practice. Arizona coach Sean Miller said it is possible Allen could play against the Huskies, but his status is questionable. Wildcats center Dusan Ristic, another starter, left the WSU game after spraining his ankle and is also considered questionable. … Saturday is senior day for the Huskies, though Romar wouldn’t say if the team’s lone senior, 6-foot-9 forward Malik Dime, would return from suspension to play. Dime, who hasn’t played since Jan. 7 due to a broken pinky on his right hand, was suspended indefinitely after slapping two Colorado students during UW’s game in Boulder last week. Romar said Wednesday that Dime was healthy enough to play, and said Friday “we’ll probably know for sure tomorrow” whether Dime will return from suspension to play in his final home game.
Christian Caple: email@example.com