The crowd at the 2020 Capital Hoops Classic in the third quarter of the women’s game. Photo: Parker Townes/The Fulcrum
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Follis and Lefebvre-Okankwu share thoughts on attendance gap between men’s and women’s basketball games

Wearing a garnet jersey, a Gee-Gee drove into the paint. Knowing she wouldn’t find the rim, she skillfully passed the ball right by her defender and into the hands of a teammate behind the three-point line. Effortlessly, she took the shot, and the satisfying sound of the ball flying through the mesh added three points to the board, tying up what was an incredibly intense game.

The crowd went absolutely wild!

Well, kind of. 

The fans in the stands cheered, but the level of excitement did not reflect what was happening on the court. In all honesty, it was pretty quiet, dull even. Sure, there were family, friends, and a mix of alumni and students in the bleachers, but there were just as many, if not more empty seats.

For the rest of the women’s game, most of those seats did get filled. A wave of students trickled into the gym, packing the stands and bringing the volume up a few decibel levels. But with only minutes left in the fourth quarter, the late attendees pretty much missed the whole game.

Actually, it’s safe to assume they weren’t there for the game — or that one at least. They were there to watch the men’s teams play.

Throughout the men’s basketball game, the crowd was loud, bringing a new type of energy and an exciting atmosphere that wasn’t present for the previous game. There was constant noise, encouraging the team to perform at their best and rewarding them with cheers and screams when baskets were scored or someone got a steal.

Seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? 

Unfortunately, women’s teams throughout various leagues suffer from this issue, including the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees women’s teams playing both in the OUA and the RSEQ. 

While women on various teams have proven their skills and abilities, it seems that the fans prefer to flock to the men’s games. Why? Some claim that the men’s games are simply more exciting, faster-paced, with flashier plays and dunks. Others don’t want to sit through two games in a night, and some claim they cannot make it to the earlier start.

Reasons beyond that? I’m sure people have come up with plenty. 

Katherine Follis has played in her fair share of OUA games. Transferring from Ryerson to the Gee-Gees this past season, the veteran forward has experienced the phenomenon throughout her playing career.

“I noticed that there is usually less turnout to women’s games early on in my career,” Follis said. “Throughout my time playing basketball, I have continued to notice the stands filling up for the later game in the night.”

“We appreciate the fans that do show up for our games,” Follis said. “We try to show our appreciation for them as much as we can.”

Brigitte Lefebvre-Okankwu has become a key player in her three years as a Gee, earning both OUA and USports rookie of the year honours in her freshman season. Lefebvre-Okankwu, along with every player who has earned such acknowledgements, didn’t do so without working for it.

“People are not aware of the amount of time we put in at the gym and (are) not aware that we play at a high level,” Lefebvre-Okankwu explained. “Women’s basketball is elite.” 

“The level of competition and sport for the men’s and women’s program here at the U of O is top in the country,” Follis added. “I would love for the student population to take advantage of the chance to watch some of the best basketball in the country for both the men’s and women’s games.”

But attendance goes beyond appearances, and athletes say the number of spectators courtside can have a real impact on the game being played.

“I have played in games where the crowd and attendance has a huge impact on the outcome of the game,” Follis said. “Playing in an environment where the crowd is cheering for you and creating an atmosphere makes it tough on the opponent and is a huge advantage for the (home) team.” 

For both the athletes and the fans themselves, the atmosphere can change the experience. Hearing a legion of cheering gans brings up the intensity, helps restore energy and motivation in the final minutes, and, in tight situations, encourages athletes to fight right until the end. A friendly crowd can help an athlete stay positive, even when the team is down.

“The team is able to use the energy from the crowd to push us even more on the court,” said Follis.

On the other hand, athletes note the lack of attendance can be frustrating — watching the women’s game end and seeing the stands fill up as the men’s team begin to warm up leaves players feeling disappointed. 

“The game is always the main concern, but after the game is done and we see that there are more people there to watch the men’s game, it’s frustrating,” Lefebvre-Okankwu said. “It’s not that it makes the experience any less fun, but there is such an obvious gap between the teams (and) that is concerning.”

At the Capital Hoops Classic, an annual event now held at TD Place where the Gee-Gees meet their rivals across the canal, the Carleton Ravens, the disparity in crowd size between the women’s and men’s game was blatant. At the end of the night, over 8,000 tickets had been sold for the blockbuster game.

Unfortunately, those 8,000 people were not there the entire time. Even at halftime, the empty seats were impossible to ignore. Only a few groups of people were scattered throughout some of the seating areas and multiple sections were empty. Sure, there were still a lot of supporters for either team, and while there were cheers on both ends, it was not comparable to the next game.

The men’s game filled nearly every single seat, and there was never a moment of silence. The stadium was loud, every basket and every blow of the whistle triggered cheers or jeers. 

“It’s just the respect for women’s sport that is lacking,” Lefebvre-Okankwu said. 

Women’s basketball head coach Andy Sparks said he has looked at ways to boost attendance to his team’s games. Sparks said he thinks it’s less about the games and more about getting the community involved.

“It’s good and fun competitive games, I don’t think it’s the product on the court that’s the issue,” said Sparks. “I think we just need to get more community engagement and there’s definitely work to be done on that level.”

“People are missing out on great basketball if they neglect the women’s teams. Women’s basketball is incredibly entertaining,” Lefebvre-Okankwu said.

“All you have to do is come watch and see.”

— with files from Charley Dutil

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