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The Lady Bears' Success on Court Boosted by Strong Fan Support

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via flickr.com/photos/andrewbateman/ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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The Lady Bears warm up before a game against the Indiana Lady Hoosiers in 2004

Although Baylor Women’s Basketball exited the NCAA tournament earlier this week, they've seen unprecedented success during the past 16 years under coach Kim Mulkey. But in a sport where fan support can often be a luxury, one of Mulkey’s greatest accomplishments has been building a bridge between her team and the community. KWBU intern Shehan Jeyarajah has more on Waco’s unique relationship with its women’s basketball team. 

Baylor University is in the midst of an athletic renaissance. If you’ve spent any time in Waco over the last 10 years that shouldn’t come as any surprise. The athletic program has seen national success across the board, from national championships in tennis and equestrian to major bowl appearances by the football team. But perhaps no group is more nationally respected at this point than Baylor women’s basketball. The Lady Bears have grown into one of the most successful basketball programs in the nation, under head coach Kim Mulkey, who first arrived in Waco in 2000. Jay Luksis is assistant athletic director of marketing and fan engagement. After spending time with two other athletic programs, he says Baylor’s consistent fan support for the women’s basketball team is unique compared to other programs. Luksis sees Kim Mulkey as the driving force behind the success.

“I think everyone just gravitates towards Coach Mulkey,” Luksis said. “She’s a fierce competitor, she’s great to work with on and off the court, she knows what she needs to succeed and gets it done. I think it’s both. She has a very strong personality and knows what she wants and what she needs to win.”

Though women’s basketball is considered a revenue sport, it isn’t known nationally for its strong fan support. For many schools, the sport is somewhat of an afterthought in the realm of college athletics. That was just as true at Baylor, where the school did not have an intercollegiate women’s basketball team until the 1970s. Between then and Mulkey’s arrival, women’s basketball struggled to gain a foothold in the community. During the 2000 season, the last before Mulkey arrived in Waco, the Lady Bears drew just 1,700 fans to their games. Mulkey recalled coming to Waco to the prospect of a Ferrell Center at below 20 percent capacity, and knew she could do something about it.

“Well on the women’s side, you have to generate fan interest,” Mulkey said. “Certainly winning brings a lot of fans, but when you have a relationship with your fans, they feel like they’re a bigger part of your success. When I got here 16 years ago, I spent a lot of time being out in the community so people could buy tickets and encourage them to come. We make sure our players do the same.”

Just five years into Mulkey’s reign, everything changed. Mulkey and All-American forward Sophia Young led Baylor to its first national championship. The win did not only help establish Mulkey as a coach, but became the catalyst that changed how Baylor as a school and athletic department was perceived. Baylor’s director of athletic marketing Chad Klempnauer was a student intern during the 2005 championship season and remembered that there was an immediate swell in support for the team and athletic program after the championship win.

“It was big because we were looking for something like this that had never happened before,” Klempnauer said. “Once it happened, everyone jumped on board and was all in and that kind of led the way to all of the other recent years of success.”

While winning titles has brought in significant support, the Lady Bears have remained proactive in making new fans in the community. Players have been known to visit schools to read with kids, and visit patients at Baylor Scott and White hospital. The Lady Bears have also stayed active in engaging Baylor alumni through the Tip Off club. The Tip Off Club is the official women’s support organization through the Baylor Bear alumni foundation. Members can pledge at different levels and receive benefits, including apparel, interaction with the team and scouting reports from coaches. Donations for senior citizens start at just $100, compared to $350 for men’s basketball. Klempnauer, who works closely with the Tip Off Club at Baylor.

“They do a lot of postgame events with them. I think the fans enjoy learning about them off the court. They follow them to road games,” Klempnauer said. “They’re not even fans anymore, they’re part of their family.

The results are undeniable. Between the 2011 and 2015 seasons, the Lady Bears ranks No. 6 nationally in average attendance with more than 7,500 fans per game. That number is 2 thousand more fans that Texas A&M gets per game, and nearly 4 thousand more than the University of Texas. The attendance number even dwarfs the Baylor men’s basketball team, which draws just under 7,000 fans per game over the past five seasons. Much has changed at Baylor in the 16 years since Mulkey took charge. Baylor football has experienced a similar resurgence under Art Briles, which led to the $270 million McLane Stadium project. Scott Drew took over men’s basketball in 2003 and has led the Bears to a pair of Elite Eight appearances. No matter who you talk to in the athletic department, the message is clear: there has never been a better time to be a Bear.

“I think our 2005 national championship in front of 30,000 people was a shining light for our university,” Mulkey said. “I think it also showed our alumni and administration, hey, we like winning and we can do this on a national stage. Let’s go get the right coaches, let’s give them the right resources and see if we can’t do this across the board in athletics.”

Kim Mulkey and the Baylor Lady Bears were eliminated in the Elite Eight for the third consecutive season, but return four starters and a pair of All-Americans next season. The Lady Bears also will welcome in the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. The future remains bright in Waco – on the court, and in the stands.