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Empty seats are the price for success

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published March 27. 2013 4:00AM

Storrs

Nobody else has spent more time in the last 10 years whining about attendance at UConn's women's basketball games than I have. It's been a parade of anti-fan rants, supporting UConn coach Geno Auriemma's theory that, apparently, his program doesn't win enough.

Here is what I have learned, however: If you refuse to accommodate new evidence or changing circumstances, you become a sour old coot on a talk show whose listeners are a bunch of sycophants with the same agenda.

Hence, I come to praise UConn fans today, not bury them.

You have spoken.

I hope your message is heard.

A popular topic of debate Tuesday night on social media: How come there was nobody, relatively speaking, at the UConn-Vanderbilt tournament game at Gampel Pavilion? Theories abounded about the crowd of 4,417, the smallest at Gampel since 1994.

Here's mine: The market for women's basketball in Connecticut is saturated. Overfilled. Waterlogged. Runneth over. The people here have been milked to the last drop. And I don't blame them for staying home.

There's only so much money here to be spent. And while "the economy" is becoming a societal crutch, money, or lack thereof, is the single biggest factor in this debate.

Look at what they're doing to UConn fans:

The Big East tournament comes to Hartford. Ticket packages are $99 apiece, the highest of any women's conference tournament in the country. So let's say Bill and Hillary from Clinton buy two tickets. That's $198.

Bill and Hillary then move to the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, again in Connecticut. Ticket packages were reasonable ($50) in Storrs but still more expensive than at other regionals ($25 in Lubbock, $30 in College Park).

Bill and Hillary have spent 100 more.

Now this week, it's off to Bridgeport (it would have been Trenton were it not the NCAA's overreaction to Gov. Christie's gambling proposal) for the regional. Ticket packages for all sessions are $54.50 apiece. Which means $109 more (and we haven't factored parking or gas yet).

If Bill and Hillary want to go to the Final Four, as many UConn fans do, it's two plane tickets and at least three days in a hotel, which are absurdly priced in New Orleans. Seriously: Bourbon St. might be fun, but with virtually all downtown rooms in excess of $200 per night, Pat O'Brien's better be making hurricanes buy one, get one free.

So let's say, conservatively, Bill and Hillary spend a combined $500 on plane tickets and another $600 for the hotel. Throw in meals and other travel expenses and the Final Four checks in around $1,500.

The UConn women's experience, 2013, would cost Bill and Hillary somewhere around $2,000.

Do you have that kind of money lying around?

If you do, would you spend it watching a preponderance of games that aren't competitive?

If you are a senior on a fixed income - which many UConn women's fans are - could you honestly afford this?

I get that the Important People set prices at what they believe the market bears. This market has been very good to women's basketball in the last 25 years. This market has helped sustain the game. And now this market is being exploited. Happily, the market spoke loudly and clearly this weekend.

There's no denying the convenience of having three tournaments in driving distance. But many fans who are already season ticket holders are getting socked with donor based seating. It's become too much.

"All we can do is put the best teams possible on the floor," Auriemma said Monday night. "For those people who come out and enjoy it, they take the time to get in the car and drive out here, my program and everyone else has always been indebted to them. They kind of made Connecticut different than every other place in the country.

"Do we take some of these things for granted? I'm sure there's some of that," he said. "I bet there will be huge crowds in Bridgeport, I think. They don't get to see us that much. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of talk about (the attendance in Storrs). I don't know what it was at other places, maybe it's was higher than this one. I'm sure there are reasons for that. They're not saving their money for the regionals or they didn't just get through paying for the Big East.

"There are a lot of factors in this," he said. "If I comment on it, people will say 'screw you, do you know how much money you make? It's not like that for the rest of us.' I don't want to comment. I want to be politically correct now. It's great for the people who came out. You've got to love them. They've been supporting us forever. I'm sure they'd come no matter what."

After a regular season in a new league of not-so-sexy opponents next year, don't be surprised if the conference tournament is held at Mohegan Sun. Note to Neon Uncasville: Make the ticket packages utterly reasonable. With free parking, they just might come. That's unless the next two NCAA tournament rounds are in Connecticut, too.

UConn women's fans have deserved criticism over the years for not showing up in the immediate post-Diana era. Or for Maya Moore's last game. But now? Enough's enough. The people of Connecticut have spoken. Someone should listen to the sport's most loyal fans.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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