In 2014-15, when the Wichita State women’s basketball team was 29-5, played in its third consecutive NCAA Tournament and highlighted the best player in Shocker history, Alex Harden, the average attendance for home games was 2,521.
Koch Arena was less than a quarter full and if you take away the annual home game in which thousands of screaming schoolkids take field trips for a game, the average tumbles lower.
Women’s basketball hasn’t ever moved the needle much at Wichita State, despite a feeling that it could. Even that it should.
But is that realistic?
New Shocker women’s coach Keitha Adams, who grew up in Oxford and graduated from high school there in 1985, thinks so. Of course she thinks so.
Introduced to a few dozen fans during a news conference Monday at Koch Arena, Adams talked about how important it is to Kansas-ize the program.
“The sky’s the limit (for attendance),” said Adams, who has coached at UTEP since 2001. “One of the things I want to do is reach out immediately in Wichita and the area. My philosophy is for people to feel connected to us. We’re going to get some energy going.”
It’s going to be easy to root for Adams. Several of her old Oxford teammates and classmates showed up for Monday’s news conference, as did her mother, Sue, who used to spend her winters in El Paso attending Miners games.
As WSU athletic director Darron Boatright said Monday, “Kansans love Kansans.”
Boatright knows, though, that the love only goes so far. It’s going to be easier to sustain with a lot of wins and a bunch of postseason appearances and a rise in national status.
Shocker women’s basketball has always struggled to find traction. Most fans would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of former Wichita State players. It’s telling that the Shockers won 99 games in four seasons under Jody Adams-Birch from 2011 through 2015, yet attendance rose only about 600 per game.
That kind of winning should demand that Wichita State put a couple more people in the ticket office. Yet the community never really connected with Adams-Birch, whose demanding coaching style and conflicts with players made her and the program difficult for some to embrace.
Keitha Adams comes with no baggage, unless you count last season’s 8-23 record at UTEP. Rare is the coach who gets another job after an 8-23 season, but Boatright sees beyond one year.
Adams led the Miners to 29 wins three times in the previous six seasons.
“When I can go out and hire my first women’s basketball coach and she’s coming off 8-23 and I don’t get criticized for that, that tells me Kansans support Kansans,” Boatright said.
Again, though, Wichita State women’s basketball is a strange entity. The Shockers have had six 20-win seasons in their four-decade history and four happened since 2011. Yet there’s not an outcry for more achievement.
The Shockers open the gates for a women’s game and know that 2,000, or thereabouts, are going to show up. Not usually many more, not usually many less.
Boatright and Adams believe that can change.
“I think because of the success we see with our women’s volleyball program, the interest in women’s sports is here,” Boatright said.
He, like Adams, stressed the need to market the Shockers’ program to players in and around Wichita and Kansas.
“We have to make sure that we’re recruiting the state of Kansas as hard as we possibly can,” Boatright said. “If two players are of similar talent, similar abilities, then the Kansas kid maybe needs to get the nod. That’s no indictment on anything that’s been done previously. I just think you really have to involve the community.”
Easier said than done. The first part of the equation is helping in whatever way to see that Division I talent is being developed in high schools around Wichita.
Wichita State volleyball coach Chris Lamb has not only done wonders with his program, but he’s helped create a volleyball rush in Wichita. More girls are playing the sport here than ever and the success of the Shockers, not to mention Kansas and Kansas State, has increased the exposure of the sport.
It’s nice to talk about recruiting more local players for Wichita State’s basketball team, but you have to be careful that those players are good enough to elevate the quality of the team.
A bunch of Wichita and area women on a Shockers team that can’t shoot straight isn’t going to do anything for attendance.
I like the Adams hire. She’s experienced, has been successful and is thrilled to be back home. Or at least close — Oxford is about 35 miles south of Wichita.
It’ll be easy to pull for her. In some ways, her hiring is reminiscent of bringing Linda Hargrove on board in 1989 after a successful run as coach at Cowley Community College in Arkansas City.
Hargrove was involved in the hiring process that eventually landed Adams, who once coached at Independence Community College. Hargrove grew up in Udall, 13 miles north of Oxford.
The Shockers have gone back to the Sumner County well, hoping for a boost.