Sunday, February 11, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 11, 2001

WAC hurting Wahine

UH athletics outspends revenues

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

The rule of thumb with University of Hawaii sports has long been that when its teams win, the fans will come.

So, what happened with the Wahine volleyball team this past season?

The Wahine won and won. The Wahine won, at one point, 27 consecutive matches and were ranked as high as No. 1 in one poll. They went to the final four, finished 31-2, and did not lack for stars.

And, still their attendance dropped.

What’s more, gate receipts slipped, too. The Wahine came in $65,000 below 1999 despite an extra date, according to figures from UH. And, projected for a modest 4 percent increase, the Wahine fell $98,000 short of projections.

Make no mistake about it, the Wahine are still No. 1 in NCAA attendance and they still make money. Any of 304 other NCAA Division I volleyball teams would trade balance sheets with them faster than Lily Kahumoku can go cross court.

But as UH looks at projections of a $250,000-$500,000 deficit in its athletic budget for the current fiscal year, the Wahine numbers are alarming.

That football came in under projections and men’s basketball is well on the way there can be traced to the reversal of on-the-field fortunes from a 9-4 record to 3-9 for football and 17-12 to, so far, 10-11, for basketball.

But the message behind the Wahine decline is more ominous. It underlines what a lot of us have suspected for a while now: that the Western Athletic Conference is holding the Wahine back in ways that go beyond the court. That fans aren’t buying the WAC brand and it is time to explore options with greater urgency.

For it is in the middle of the season, the heavy WAC portion of the schedule, where the crowds thin out and the financial returns are meager. When the Wahine play a brand-name team, a UCLA, Long Beach State, etc., the crowds come out. But when it is Southern Methodist or Rice, the hardcore only turn out.

Not that you can blame them, either. The wait in line for a hot dog can be longer than it sometimes takes for the Wahine to win a game in a conference where they are 73-1 in the past five years.

The WAC definition of a "rival" for UH is any team that can take so much as a game from the Wahine. These days, hardly anybody does.

These were problems the Wahine never had when they were in the Big West where Long Beach State, Pacific and the rest not only provided natural rivals but a competitive night-in and night-out brand of play that helped ready the Wahine for the NCAA postseason.

Now, when the Wahine go on the road to Tulsa, they spend more time gathering their luggage at baggage claim than they do in dispatching the Golden Hurricane on the floor. It is a situation that makes little sense from either a competitive or financial standpoint.

UH coach Dave Shoji has said the level of WAC competition is getting better. But expecting it to improve substantially might be too much to hope for.

With dollars tight all around the conference these days, you’d think the rest of the WAC might not mind if UH went back to the Big West. Spending $10,000 or more to have a team travel for seven hours only to lose a match in an hour and a half can’t be very palatable.

UH is in the WAC in football and basketball mostly because there is no other option. But that shouldn’t have to be the case for volleyball and, indeed, softball, women’s basketball or baseball, where we are again reminded the Big West would be a better all-around fit.

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