Seeing Red: Marketing Women's Hoops No Easy Task

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Byline: Patricia Babcock McGraw

For the last year or so, the people who work within the DePaul and Loyola athletic departments have had their noses pressed firmly to the grindstone.

Preparing to host a women's conference basketball tournament is hard work. Especially when your budget is small and your market is the third largest in the country.

Without the funds to advertise heavily in Chicago's pricey mainstream media, these people have had to work every possible angle to get the word out to families, schools, youth organizations, senior citizen groups - any demographic that would likely put fans in the stands. They held free clinics for coaches, hung up fliers and visited schools and retirement homes.

They also made dozens of calls to corporate America in search of sponsors. They organized banquets, set up hotels, made travel arrangements, even put together gift baskets for the players. The to-do list went on and on.

These people did it all with the knowledge that their departments probably won't make a dime off the Conference USA tournament or the Horizon League tournament, which are being be staged this weekend at DePaul and Loyola, respectively.

In most cases, the marketing of women's basketball is still very much a labor of love.

In a 1999 NCAA study, 90 percent of Division I women's basketball programs lost money - with an average deficit of $700,000. Then again, even the 5-year-old WNBA hasn't turned a profit yet, and more than 25 percent of men's college programs operate in the red.

The good news is that because a conference tournament is more of a marquee event - and could draw fans from several different areas - the chances of avoiding such heavy losses are much better for DePaul and Loyola this weekend. Making a profit still isn't likely, but breaking even can be a realistic goal.

"That's what we're hoping to do and we think we're on track for that - based on the tickets we've already sold and the sponsorships we've gotten," said DePaul senior associate athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, who estimates expenses for the C-USA tournament will tally around $75,000.

She also expects the latter rounds of the tournament to be near sellouts at the 3,500-seat DePaul Athletic Center.

"There are a few conferences that might make money - like the SEC, the Big 12 and the Big 10," Ponsetto said. "But rarely does a women's tournament finish in the black.

"It takes a lot of work just to cover your expenses, and I just can't say enough about the effort we've gotten from everyone in the department who has worked on this. It's not an easy venture. Women's basketball is still so new in the grand scheme of things. It's been around 25 years, compared to some of the pro sports in this town that have been around forever. It can be a tough sell."

Until recently, even the perennial powerhouses have found that to be true.

Six-time national champion Tennessee, arguably the flagship program of the women's college game, first broke even about six years ago. …