South Carolina and Mississippi State have separated from the rest of the SEC with big wins, big crowds, and big checks.
basketball Edit

WBB: The Haves and Have Nots

Women’s basketball in the SEC is increasingly becoming a two-team competition, with everyone else playing catch up. South Carolina and Mississippi State have combined to win every regular season and tournament title for the past six seasons, and the two have faced off in the tournament final four times (plus that little old NCAA championship game), with South Carolina winning every time. How have these two programs, neither a traditional power, been able to separate themselves from the rest of a traditionally strong conference?

Fan support is one reason, albeit one that is hard to quantify. Let’s start with South Carolina. For the sixth straight season the Gamecocks led the nation in attendance. It’s old hat at this point - big building, lots of wins, a (recent) tradition of a superb fan experience - and it’s not surprising that one of the best teams drew the largest crowds. During those same six seasons, South Carolina has won a national championship, five SEC tournament titles, four regular season titles, and averaged over 30 wins a season, so it makes sense that fan support would follow.

During that span, South Carolina has seen the average attendance rise and fall, from a high of 14,364 in 2015-16 to a low of 10,406 last season, with this season’s 12,218 nicely in the middle. But it has been the only program to consistently draw over 10,000* fans per game during that time frame. Let’s dive a little deeper into the numbers.

*I am aware that the announced attendance is seldom the actual attendance. After one game this season, the announced attendance jumped by 500 between the unofficial box score and the official box score because the latter led to a nice round number. But everybody does that among the big programs because they want the good-looking numbers. Programs with low attendance tend not bother with massaging the attendance figures, which only makes the figures look smaller. We go with announced attendance because that’s what we have.

Oregon joined South Carolina in the 10,000-plus club this season, the only two programs that drew five figures. They also stood out in another way: the schools’ women’s basketball teams out-drew the men’s basketball teams. The South Carolina women have outdrawn the men in four of the last six seasons, but it is still a fairly rare occurrence nationally. The women’s teams at South Carolina, Oregon, Mississippi State, UConn, and Notre Dame outdrew their male counterparts this season.**

Here are the average attendance numbers for South Carolina:

Season WBB (games-average) MBB

2019-’20 15 - 12,218 17 - 12,180

2018-’19 17 - 10,406 17 - 11,472

2017-’18 16 - 13,287 15 - 12,618

2016-’17 16 - 12,277 18 - 13,396

2015-’16 17 - 14,364 19 - 11,995

2014-’15 16- 12,293 16 - 11,520

**I didn’t go back six years for every school, because I’m already too far down this rabbit hole. Nor did I look at every school for this season, because I’m not a masochist and I’m really only interested in the top programs. So I looked at the top ten in women’s basketball attendance and the rest of the SEC.

South Carolina and Mississippi State (7,681), along with Tennessee (8,645) are at the forefront for the SEC. It’s not surprising to see Tennessee near the top in attendance. For many years the Lady Vols were synonymous with women’s basketball, and the Tennessee fan base tends to support women’s basketball no matter who is playing. But Mississippi State and South Carolina are the nouveau riche, and they are part of a new wave of programs with big wins, big crowds, and big checkbooks.

The rest of the SEC isn’t necessarily keeping up. After those three, every other program is averaging less than 5,000 fans per game. That includes top 25 programs like Kentucky, LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M, a program that won a national championship in 2011 and was the preseason pick to win the SEC, but averaged just 3,798 fans this season despite being the preseason pick to win the SEC. As much as probably any program in the country, the Aggies are proof that wins alone don’t bring fans to games, a fact not lost on Texas A&M coach Gary Blair.

“I’d like to give South Carolina a lot of credit for giving the rest of the country the blueprint on how to run a game, how to have a concourse full of things for kids, adults, and everything,” Blair said. “That’s missing in the women’s game because we’re so worried about saving money in the women’s game, and y’all are all about spending money and winning championships. Give your administration a lot of credit. Y’all know how to show off a national championship. We’ve won one, and you’ve won one, but how you’ve sold it up on the concourse is a lot better than how we’ve sold ours. We’ll work on trying to copy some of your ideas.”

Gamecock home games have the big crowds, but also flame launchers, smoke machines, pregame music, halftime shows, everything the men’s team has. For Gamecock fans who only go to home games, it may be surprising that this is definitely the exception, not the rule. Many women’s basketball programs are operated the same way they were 20 years ago, with more in common with the so-called Olympic sports than men’s basketball.

Blair’s Aggies, to his dismay, are also their own worst enemy - proof that the amount of money spent and the amount of wins aren’t always equal. And that is what frustrates him. Blair took over at Texas A&M in 2003, when the Aggies had seven straight losing seasons and had never won more than five games in a Big 12 season. By 2011 he won a national championship. Texas A&M was a favorite to win the SEC this season before injuries derailed their season, and Blair is frustrated by the sense that Texas A&M is not giving him the resources to sustain the success he built.

“If you remember back, ten years ago, South Carolina was in the bottom of the league,” Blair said. “Seventeen years ago, our conference office was probably better than Texas A&M. Mississippi State was in the bottom of the league. Arkansas was near the bottom of the league. Look what all four of those programs have done. It’s a cycle, it’s coaching, it’s the ability to do things the right way. That’s what we’re trying to do is to stay up.”

Blair was at Arkansas before Texas A&M and despite his success there he reportedly made the move to the struggling Aggies in part because Arkansas refused to pay Blair what he felt he was worth. Now Blair is making between $800,000-900,000 a season.***

***Head coaching salaries, as you know, are difficult to pin down due to creative use of bonuses and vague annual increases. I’m going off the best available information. It doesn’t help that several of the top coaches are at private universities that don’t have to report salaries. For example, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer is believed to have a clause in her contract that forbids her from discussing her salary.

Blair’s salary isn’t chump change, but it’s also a discount for a coach with a national championship on his resume. In fact, Blair is the lowest paid active coach with an NCAA Championship, as every other championship coach is making at least $1.2 million (led by Geno Auriemma’s $2.4 million per season and excluding Tara VanDerveer’s unknown pay). I’m not suggesting he is unhappy with his salary - he hasn’t said that. But Blair can surely look around and see where things are headed.

Blair heads up a second tier that includes Tennessee’s Kellie Harper and Georgia’s Joni Taylor, who are each making around $750,000 a year, despite being relatively unproven. Arkansas is paying Blair’s former assistant Mike Neighbors around $600,00 a season, but they also paid a $1 million buyout to get him. That is middle of the pack in the SEC, in line with Auburn’s Terri Williams-Flournay and LSU’s Nikki Fargas, who make about the same. All are respected coaches, but none with the same resume as Blair. (And then there's the third tier, at Florida, Missouri, and Alabama, where the programs are clearly run on a shoestring budget. Vanderbilt has not disclosed Stephanie White’s salary.)

But the upper class in coaching salaries is the nouveau riche that Blair was talking about. Kentucky is paying Matthew Mitchell $1.26 million per season. Mitchell only has one SEC regular season championship, back in 2012, but he has gone to three Elite Eights, is Kentucky’s all-time winningest coach, and has brought some stability to a program that hasn’t traditionally had any.

And then you have Vic Schaefer and Dawn Staley. Schaefer’s last extension gives him a slightly higher salary ($1.6 million per season with annual increases) than Staley ($1.5 million with annual increases that top out at $2.1 million in 2024-25, the final season). That puts both near the top five nationally, behind Auriemma, Baylor’s Kim Mulkey ($1.9 million) and Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw (believed to be $1.7 million).

Schaefer and Staley are well aware that their respective administrations aren’t paying them to lose. They have to use the resources provided to them, and recruiting is a key component to that. This is where you have a chicken and egg conundrum. Fan support and winning help recruiting, but you need to recruit to win, and you need to win to develop a fan base. It takes a smart coaching hire, and a little luck (both programs got their initial spark when some in-state recruits opted to stay home rather than play for a traditional power, and Pat Summitt’s illness and early retirement took Tennessee out of contention), to provide the spark to get the wheel turning. That’s why it’s not as simple as just administrations spending money.

“You have to have administrators who really don't get in your way,” Staley said after the SEC tournament final. “They provide. We're provided whatever we need to land the top recruits in the country. Whether we deliver on that each year, it's on us. We feel like we get everything that we need to get what we need to get done. I think what's happened for us, just aside from an administrative standpoint, it's our fans, the way we're able to create a home-court advantage. We make it look like other national championship teams.”

Schaefer agreed that the key to program building begins with the ability to recruit. Both programs have been recruiting at a high level for several years, with South Carolina’s 2019 freshman class just the cherry on top.

“In the SEC we've got, number one, great staffs that recruit. I think Dawn would tell you she recruits to a fit. We recruit to a fit. I think the fact that we have all these good young players playing in this game tomorrow, playing in this conference, I've always said this is a nightmare of a league. You have the best players in the country in this league,” Schaefer said prior to the final. “Again, I think it's the investment. Just like in women's athletics and women's basketball, the universities that are investing in it are seeing the return. If you don't invest in it, you're not going to get a return. It's just like anything in life, in business. I think that's the next piece is that more and more universities, more and more athletic departments are seeing the benefit of having a great women's basketball program, and they're investing.”

That investment is what made Blair envious, but it is still up to the coaches to create the return. The marketing departments aren’t trying to get fans to games only to have them go home indifferent. The coaches have to keep the fans engaged, and winning is just part of it. It showed at the SEC tournament this year.

“I know my fans. I’ve got three of the biggest farmers in the delta here. I know who they are and what their work ethic is. I know the pride they take in the job that they have. There's hundreds of people like that that are here. Yet they're spending their time, their money and their interest in our program. So, yeah, I feel a tremendous responsibility to the people like that. I mean, to me, I don't want them to go home disappointed, unhappy, early, whatever you want to call it, Schaefer said before the final. “I'm so proud of my fans. I mean, it's unlike most places. I know Dawn feels the same way about South Carolina. It's really special, really special. Don't think that doesn't go unappreciated by me or our players or my staff. We absolutely appreciate it and we do feel a responsibility to them.”

The results are obvious, and further proof of how the Gamecocks and Bulldogs have separated from the rest of the league. The largest crowd to ever watch a basketball game in the state of Mississippi was the 10,794 that watched the Bulldogs finally break their losing streak against the Gamecocks in 2018 (that’s 102% capacity, by the way). South Carolina sold out Colonial Life Arena last season when the two met on the final day of the season with a share of the championship on the line. This year the SEC tournament final saw a near capacity crowd of 9,971, and the tournament had the highest total attendance of any SEC tournament held outside of Nashville, thanks primarily to Gamecock and Bulldog fans.

“When you can win at home, when you can build a fan base, they provide the energy in the building,” Staley said while in Greenville. “Sometimes they can account for four or five wins just because they're there, they're loud, invested. I can honestly say our fans are so invested in our program. Look, I'm sitting on the bench and I look up in front of me, I look behind me all the way up to the rafters. There are people sitting there. Those aren't my ideal seats if I go to an arena. I don't even know if I would go sit up top. Our fans came into this building and cheered from the very top. That's what you have to create. They came on the road, they gave up a weekend in March, the weather is breaking. That's what you need. It's a lifestyle. This just isn't a movement; it's a lifestyle. They've been doing this for years. They want to know when our schedule is next year so they can take their days off. It's a very beautiful thing. I think Vic and I have done that, and that's why you see it's really directly correlated with the fans and our connection with the fans and our success.”

Obviously, it’s not easy. I’m reminded of Matt Insell, the former Ole Miss coach. His father is a legendary coach in Tennessee, currently at Middle Tennessee State, and Matt learned under Mitchell at Kentucky. When he got to Ole Miss, he spoke repeatedly about how he wanted to emulate what Staley had done at South Carolina. But the administration was never fully behind Insell and he ended up being fired in 2018 and Ole Miss’ basketball program was a mess. I bring it up not to bash Matt Insell - he was and is very well-respected and well-liked, and I was like a lot of people who thought he would do good things at Ole Miss. I bring him up to illustrate how hard the blueprint is to execute and maintain without full support, because while Insell was failing at Ole Miss, Schaefer was building Mississippi State. Until another program commits to women’s basketball the way South Carolina and Mississippi state do, the SEC will continue to be those two and then everybody else.