The time was right to make a push.
On Sept. 8, 2013, Dawn Staley became the 15th female player to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame based on her individual merits. The honor recognized a stellar career in which Staley was a three-time Kodak All-American at the University of Virginia, a three-time Olympic gold medalist for USA Basketball, and a seven-time All-Star in two professional leagues in the United States.
Five days later, South Carolina Athletics launched a "Drive for 5" women's basketball season ticket campaign. The goal was to tie the number Staley wore as a player - No. 5 - to an attendance target of 5,000 fans or more for every South Carolina women's basketball home game.
Until then, Staley, who was coming off her fifth season as South Carolina's coach, admits she hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about attendance for women's basketball games. Instead, she was focused on transforming a program that went 10-18 in her first year at the school in 2008-09. But South Carolina was coming off a 25-8 season and a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2012-13. A year earlier, the Gamecocks went 25-10 and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. It was the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2002-03.
"When I first came here, I really had my blinders on when it came to what attendance looked like because we wanted to put a basketball program on the floor that our fans could be proud of," said Staley, who is in her 12th season at South Carolina. "What's amazing is our fans scripted what (the attendance) would look like. We did a couple of marketing ploys, but what took place is our fans' ability to bring somebody else to the game and unify in that way. We've become one of the most storied programs when it comes to attendance, and that's something I'm really proud of."
Staley and Gamecock Nation can be proud because the women's basketball program has led the nation in attendance for the last five seasons. South Carolina is on pace to make it six years in a row thanks to an average attendance of 11,069 that is No. 1 in the land. Tennessee (No. 6 nationally, average of 8,080) and Mississippi State (No. 9, 7,524) give the Southeastern Conference three teams in the top 10 - and four in the top 25 (Kentucky No. 18, 4,688; Missouri, No. 24, 3,825) -- and continue the league's run of setting the pace for attendance. Tennessee led the nation in average attendance from 2004-2014.
"The SEC coaches have really done an outstanding job of taking ownership of their programs, and not just from an Xs and Os standpoint," said Leslie Claybrook, assistant commissioner/championships for the SEC. "They have embraced all aspects of it, and that includes marketing and promoting. Part of that is getting fans in the stands, and they have done a really great job working with the teams they have in place to engage them so they can be successful."
Tamika Catchings remembers the eyes.
As an eighth-grader, Catchings didn't know Pat Summitt, but the gaze of the Tennessee women's basketball coach stopped her in her tracks.
"It was kind of creepy and then it panned out and it was a sea of orange," Catchings said. "The players were going back and forth and Pat was stomping on the sidelines and I was stuck watching the game."
Catchings couldn't recall if that day marked the first women's basketball game she watched on television, but she found herself fixated on the thought that one day -- if she was good enough -- she wanted to play for "this crazy lady" because she was going to help her accomplish her goal of playing in the NBA.
Catchings didn't realize that feat, but she went on to become Tennessee's second four-time Kodak All-American, to score 2,113 points, to grab 1,004 rebounds, and to help the Lady Volunteers cap a 39-0 season by winning the 1998 national title. Catchings then became an All-Star for the Indiana Fever of the Women's National Basketball Association and a three-time Olympic gold medalist for the United States.
Catchings recalls Summitt taking the time and building connections with fans across the country, even if it was for only a few seconds. She said Summitt stressed those things to the Lady Volunteers and set that example in everything she did, which is why the program's attendance set the standard for so many years.
Catchings said the things Staley, Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, and others in the league are doing is a continuation of what she saw from Summitt. She also believes those things are a "necessity" in today's social media age.
"She was so selfless," Catchings said. "She would do anything and everything in the community. She had a presence, but it was such a welcoming presence. There was never anybody she didn't know. You could automatically feel the energy."
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell saw that energy when he worked as a graduate assistant coach under Summitt during the Lady Volunteers' run to the Final Four in 2000. He said Summitt did things "one handshake at a time" and would sign every autograph for fans. Mitchell said he learned how to build relationships and to use grass-roots efforts to build support for his program from Summitt. Those efforts helped Kentucky rank in the top 10 nationally in attendance from 2013-16.
"She was fielding phone calls from presidents and CEOs. She was as big a sports figure as there was and she would show up at Rotary, the booster club meetings," Mitchell said. "She was out on the street talking to every person. ... What an unbelievable example because if there was anybody who could have claimed to have been busy or important or I have too much going on - she had so much going on - so it was a great reminder to me that this is a grass-roots thing and she was able to do it year after year and have the success that it was able to come to a real crescendo when she was there."
A place to win
Schaefer knew the pieces were in place.
His wife, Holly, knew it, too, after they both toured Mississippi State and the city of Starkville. The facilities, the people, the town - all of the things were there, which is why neither one doubted the women's basketball program could be built into a championship contender.
The decibel level inside Humphrey Coliseum has only increased since Schaefer's initial season in Starkville when the Bulldogs went 13-17. The Bulldogs are 85-6 in the Hump since 2014-15, including 37-5 in SEC play. MSU's top 20 single-game attendance marks have all occurred during Schaefer's tenure. In each of the last six seasons, the Bulldogs have set the average attendance record and have ranked in the top 15 nationally in total attendance four times since Schaefer took over.
In 2018-19, Mississippi State set program records for total attendance (143,578) and average attendance (8,446), which ranked fourth and fifth in the country, respectively. The success stems from a credo that appears in the team's locker room: "It's not what we do, it's how we do it."
"It was all about the quality of the product," Schaefer said. "It is the field of dreams and if you build it they will come. Today's world has so many options for entertainment, and if somebody is going to invest time and money in you, you better give them a product and something they can be proud of, something that is going to be consistent. That was the whole key. I give our kids all of the credit. I think people come to see them play because they love how hard nosed they are, how disciplined they are, and they are blue collar and work their tails off.
"Mississippi State's fans have made Humphrey Coliseum one of the toughest places to play. The entire country discovered that fact in 2016 when Mississippi State rallied to beat Michigan State 74-72 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Schaefer said the victory was a "pivotal point" in his program's development.
"I have been a coach for 21 years, played in a lot of arenas with a lot of people, maybe even more people, but I have never played in front of a crowd like that, ever," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said after the game. "That was the loudest crowd I have ever played in front of. The attendance was around 7,000 (7.094) and it felt like there were 70,000 in there."
The win catapulted Mississippi State back to the Sweet 16, where it lost to the University of Connecticut 98-38. Mississippi State upset UConn the following season 66-64 in overtime in the Final Four to advance to its first of back-to-back appearances in the national title game.
Schaefer said there were people in Humphrey Coliseum the day his team beat Michigan State that became "lifelong fans and lifelong season ticket holders."
"It was an incredible environment," Schaefer said. "I remember we were up 13 and we gave up a 20-0 run to go down seven and we come back and we take the lead. We fouled a kid on a 3-point attempt and she goes to the (free-throw) line and the place is so loud and is vibrating and she can't even get two of them to the rim. I think it really kind of set a tone for what was to come.
"Another big part of our growth was losing that game to Connecticut. I don't think we are where we are today without that failure in our history. I think sometimes you have to have that kind of failure to learn to use that adversity. If you learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket you couldn't have gone any other way. That failure is responsible for the next three years where we have been so good.
"Schaefer also said Victoria Vivians' decision to be a Bulldog played a key role in the growth of his program. Vivians, who is from Carthage, was the state's all-time leading high school scorer. She finished her college career as the program's second all-time leading scorer (2,527 points). She was part of a class that won 126 games.
"We got a national kid, a special kid who was Mississippi grown and local," Schaefer said. "She brought 200-300 people from Scott County every time we played. You can't diminish her impact on our program because it was pretty big."
Champion in Columbia
While Schaefer was making his mark in Starkville, Staley was assembling the championship pieces in Columbia, South Carolina.
The puzzle took shape in 2014-15, when South Carolina featured eight players from the state of South Carolina, including freshman A'ja Wilson. The 6-foot-5 forward from Hopkins, South Carolina, teamed with junior Tiffany Mitchell, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina, to help lead the Gamecocks to a 34-3 record and a 15-1 mark in the SEC. The Gamecocks shared the SEC regular-season title with the Lady Volunteers. South Carolina shattered the school's 35-year-old record for wins in a season en route to its first SEC tournament title and its initial trip to the Final Four. Two years later, South Carolina defeated Mississippi State 67-55 to win its first national title.
Wilson capped her career by becoming the Gamecocks' first four-time All-American, including three seasons as a first-team selection, and four-time First-Team All-SEC choice. She also was the first three-time SEC Player of the Year in conference history. In addition, she was the team's all-time leading scorer (2,389) and just the second player in program history to finish with at least 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career.
Staley said keeping players like Wilson, Khadijah Sessions (Myrtle Beach), Alaina Coates (Irmo), Asia Dozier (Columbia), and Aleighsa Welch (Goose Creek) in the state was a key component of the program's growth. That success helped attract the nation's top recruiting class for 2019-20 that included freshmen Aliyah Boston (United States Virgin Islands), Brea Beal (Illinois), and Zia Cooke (Ohio).
But Staley said the "Drive for 5" campaign sparked the spike in attendance.
"I thought it was ingenious for our marketing department to utilize my jersey number when I was being inducted into the Hall of Fame, to play off the number and to play off our fans to create a challenge," Staley said. "Our fans really love challenges when it comes to competing against other schools. We weren't competing against other schools at that point, but that was the start of the challenge of being number one in attendance, which came to fruition."
Eric Nichols, the senior associate athletics director for marketing and branding and the chief marketing officer at South Carolina, said Staley was "reluctant" to embrace being "the face of the program" in her first few years at the school but that things took off after the "Drive for 5" campaign. Nichols said Staley is a "super star in the game of basketball" and credits her ability to build relationships in person and on social media for driving the growth in attendance.
"She is so authentic," Nichols said. "If she wasn't comfortable doing those things, being in the community and doing so many media and social media things, it is going to come through. You're also not going to be very good at it. But it is not a task she is checking off a checklist. It is something she genuinely cares about. Therefore, she is really good at it."
Staley said there is no way the women's basketball program could have reached its status without a "personal touch." As a result, South Carolina is 149-33 under Staley at Colonial Life Arena, which has a capacity of 18,000. The Gamecocks have had at least 10,000 in attendance for their first nine home games. They also own four of the nine 11,000+ games across the nation this season, and they have drawn at least 10,000 fans in 77 straight regular-season home games, through games of February 27.
"The fans come to our offices," Staley said. "They are so engaged; they are so inquisitive, and we allow them to be a part our every-day lives. When I talk about our fans, I always talk about it being not a movement, but a lifestyle. They really settheir calendars to when we play, who we play, and they're our own publicity outlet. Idon't think it's ever been re-created anywhere, so I think what we have is something truly special here in Columbia."
Nichols agrees and said Staley "leads by example" in that she has created the "expectation" for South Carolina to be the best in the nation or among the top programs in the country. He acknowledges he thought Staley was being "bold" when she said the women's basketball team was going "to fill this thing up" when Colonial Life Arena opened in November 2002. But Nichols said Staley "saw something we didn't," which has paved the way for South Carolina to set the attendance standard for the rest of the country.
"You don't take it for granted, but occasionally we'll find ourselves looking back and saying, 'Wow, that is quite an accomplishment,' " Nichols said. "But when you look backward you usually get passed, and we want to take it even further. We want to become the preeminent women's basketball program in the country. Attendance is one thing, but we want to win another national championship. We do that by having a tremendous home-court advantage, and that is what we're focused on.
"Sometimes I think it was forever ago, but sometimes I think it was yesterday because some of those memories of the empty arena that are very vivid. It is really a testament to a coach who has her own brand and believes in herself, and her culture has permeated throughout this program and the city."