The Blue Devils have struggled to sell out Cameron Indoor Stadium despite their high ranking.
Chronicle Graphic by Philip Catterall
The Blue Devils have struggled to sell out Cameron Indoor Stadium despite their high ranking.

When Joanne P. McCallie was hired as Duke’s head coach in 2007, she said one of her goals was to sell out Cameron Indoor Stadium for 10 consecutive games.

She has yet to do that as the Blue Devils have seen average game attendance go back down after it peaked at 6,764 in her first season, though she has consistently put together one of the top teams in the country.

While the men’s team sells out the 9,314 capacity at Cameron Indoor Stadium on a regular basis, the women’s team has managed to do that just six times in McCallie’s nearly six years in Durham and did not do so at all in the 2011-12 campaign for the first time in seven seasons. But in McCallie’s time, the Blue Devils have owned Cameron Indoor Stadium, losing there just five times.

Last season, the Blue Devils officially averaged 5,361 in attendance per game at Cameron Indoor Stadium the majority of which were not students. Since reaching an all-time high in the 2007-08 season, the attendance at women’s games declined in the next two seasons before picking back up the last two years.

Duke ranked 15th in women’s basketball attendance last season behind less successful programs such as Louisville and Iowa State. Tennessee holds the top spot in the women’s basketball attendance with an average crowd of 14,414. Compared to the other current top five nationally-ranked programs this season—Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford—the Blue Devils only rank higher in attendance than Stanford.

In order to increase student and local excitement about the program, Duke Athletics has made a concerted effort to promote the program to the Duke and Durham community, finding limited success. Tenters in Krzyzewskiville have been given grace during women’s games both home and away with the intention of increasing student attendance. During two recent home contests against Boston College and Miami, about 300 students attended each game, a significantly higher number than during some early season contests.

The Blue Devils maintain that attendance numbers are not as important as the quality of the fans who support them at home and in nearby away games at North Carolina and N.C. State.

“We do have amazing fans. Our stadium isn’t quite as big as Connecticut’s, but we have amazing fans here and we really enjoy their support,” junior guard Chelsea Gray said.

A consistent trend for the women’s program has been that attendance increases as the season progresses or when Duke competes against another top college program. Five of the six sell-outs during McCallie’s tenure have come against North Carolina, Tennessee or Connecticut.

“We’re always trying to build support. We love our students. We love the Crazies, and we want them to come to all of our games,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “They tend to come more now during January and February because the basketball season really kicks in now, but we just think they’re the very best fans in the world. We appreciate that and want to grow it.”

McCallie has focused the effort in bolstering support for her program by promoting the individual players to fans and improving students’ knowledge of the Blue Devils high standing in the women’s college basketball rankings. Despite lower attendance numbers than the men’s team, Duke has consistently led the ACC in women’s basketball attendance.

“I think it is a process of people knowing more about our players personally. It’s a grassroots effort with women’s basketball,” McCallie said. “It’s a growing thing, and we’ll continue to try to attract students and grow it from there. I don’t think people know that much about women’s basketball when we’re talking about equity of competition. I think it’s just important that they know us personally and that they know a little bit about us because I definitely think it’s a grassroots approach.”

During Sunday’s game against North Carolina, the Blue Devils were met with a large hostile crowd as well as a group of loyal Duke season ticket holders at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill. Perhaps a testament to recent efforts, the Duke fan base was significant and made its presence known throughout the 84-63 victory for the Blue Devils.

“It was great to play in front of this crowd and a lot of Duke fans I might add,” McCallie said. “It felt comfortable. It felt like we had our section, and they had their section. I think any crowd is particularly great for women’s basketball.”

One of the biggest issues for the Duke women’s program is the fact that it has yet to win a NCAA Tournament during McCallie’s stint as head coach. The men’s team boasts four national championship banners and the winningest coach in Div. I men’s basketball, while the women have yet to make a Final Four despite their ACC banners. This disparity between the men’s and women’s programs has provided Duke with the motivation to continue to fight for on-court success and greater fan support.

“We use it as motivation,” Gray said. “The men’s team has four banners up there and we have yet to put up one. So that’s sort of a motivation and challenge for us to get there.”

McCallie sees the goals for her program as intertwined. The team continues to pursue a national championship while fostering local support for regular season games.

“We’re just working hard to be great. We don’t have any banners, but we’re working for them. And we just want to attract fans the best we can,” McCallie said.