Fans flocked to the women’s NCAA Tournament, which had its highest attendance in over 15 years.
Nearly 275,000 people attended the NCAAs which ranked eighth all-time, including an expected crowd of over 20,000 for the title game between Baylor and Notre Dame on Sunday night.
“We’ve had a really great championship. Our first and second round numbers is the best we’ve seen in 11 years,” NCAA vice president for women’s basketball Lynn Holzman said.
The regionals provided a strong boost. Portland, Oregon, a first-time site, averaged over 11,400 fans and will host again next year.
Chicago and Albany also had strong attendance. Three of the sites had teams with strong fan bases within driving distance: Oregon, Notre Dame and UConn. While Greensboro’s numbers didn’t compare to the other three, the North Carolina city still had an increase in attendance from when it hosted in 2015. The regional attendance was its highest since the NCAA switched to neutral sites after the 2014 season.
“I thought the committee did a really good job of placing teams in places where they were going to get good crowds,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “We were so excited to be able to go to Chicago. I think it was definitely great for the NCAA and for ESPN to see that. I think three sites were really, really well-supported.”
It was only two years ago that the NCAA saw 20-year lows in regional attendance.
“We have to do what’s best for the game,” McGraw said. “Right now getting attendance is what’s best. Is there another model that works better? I think people are open and willing to try it.”
McGraw understood No. 1 seeds Mississippi State and Louisville had to play what were pretty much road games in the regional finals.
“It’s tough to be the 1 seed and go to the 2 seed, and you saw geography won out and the fans won out in those places,” she said.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz wasn’t upset that his team had to play in Albany against UConn. His team had the advantage playing in Lexington, Kentucky the year before.
“I’d rather be playing a game like this in front of hopefully 12 to 13,000 fans. And if nine-tenths of them are here for UConn, that’s great. The ball is the same. The rims are the same. The length of the court is the same. Any player would rather play in a great environment than possibly be playing where there’s 1,500 people, 1,000, that show up for a regional final,” he said. “You know, as our game continues to grow, hopefully you can get a site where it’s not right in someone’s backyard. But we had the same thing last year. We played in Lexington, an hour away, to have a chance to go to a Final Four.”
It wasn’t just the late rounds that drew well. Iowa set a record for combined first- and second-round attendance drawing 23,096 fans in Iowa City. That shattered the previous mark of 21,129 set by South Carolina in 2015. Iowa drew an average of 11,548 over the first two rounds. The average attendance of 5,299 at the 16 sites was the highest for the opening rounds since 2008.