Let me paint a picture for you. You’re at Norm Stewart Court, watching Missouri freshman Ashton Judd dive to grab a loose ball she’s poked away from the other team, causing their coach to call a timeout. As you wait for play to restart, you scan the seats around you at Mizzou Arena. You notice something. This crowd, aside from the many families you see donning tiger ears and their best black and gold, seems to skew noticeably… older? They’re everywhere, and every bit as loud and intense as the younger generations. A Katlyn Gilbert pass gone awry elicits a yell from a lanky white-haired gentleman wearing a vintage black Missouri bomber jacket. A Hayley Frank deep three from the logo swooshes through the net and suddenly they’re standing up, waving their pom-poms enthusiastically (I, a young-ish person, rarely stand up to do this). The team and athletic department no doubt appreciates these faithful fans and the family atmosphere that’s been cultivated throughout the years, but what gives? There seems to be an awful lot of retirees in the bunch. Much more than at men’s games.
Turns out, this isn’t just a Mizzou thing. It’s a phenomenon across the country. Look at the crowds on tv at women’s basketball games, and you’ll notice something. When they pan to the non-student sections, the crowds seem to have a little more gray in their hair. I’ve noticed it so much at the arena that I googled, “old people and women’s NCAA basketball.” I don’t mean this to be ageist, by the way, but it is intriguing! As a men’s season ticket holder, I know the crowd (at least in my purview) is a healthy mix of young professionals, students, longtime supporters, and families. As for my google search, I was directed to a March 2019 article in the Tampa Bay Times examining this very observation.
What’s the attraction? From the article, older fans called women’s hoops a “purer” form of basketball. “It’s not bumpin’ and slammin” and “doing all that crazy stuff” some said, and the women’s players understand the basics. Interviewees also said they like it more than the men’s game because the ladies “communicate more,” and they move around the court more, looking for open shots. It’s different than, “Get it to the big guy and dunk.” [side note: this made me laugh, as our MBB team is definitely lacking a traditional ‘dunking big guy’]
I spoke with sixth year Mizzou guard Haley Troup about her interactions with the fanbase over the years, which basically confirmed what the TBT uncovered. She said fans often reference how they play together and as a team, along with their style of play. It’s just the Mizzou way. She continued:
“We don’t really care who gets the credit,” Troup said. “It’s about the front of the jersey. It’s about Mizzou. I think we buy into that and I think they buy into that as a fan base. So it’s kind of like we’re just one big family and that’s how we want that atmosphere to be, and that’s how it feels in this arena for home games. So honestly, it’s a pretty special feeling.”
As for the data, many schools, as the TBT article also pointed out, unfortunately do not track the demographic data of its season ticket holders. When I asked around at Mizzou, I ran into the same problem as those trying to track data at women’s hoops juggernauts like UConn or South Carolina. It’s just not something they keep track of. I was told by a former MU ticket rep that Ticketmaster doesn’t track that information, and since Missouri runs their purchases through their site, for example, there are no exact numbers.
The Tampa Bay Times, however, was able to grab data from both Florida State and the University of Florida. In FSU’s case, of their 1,620 season ticket holders in 2019, 1,199 were 50 or older. That’s 74%! And for their part, while UF had far less women’s season ticket holders (only averaging about 400 from 2017-19), 85% identified as 55+. That’s incredible!
MU’s Chief Communications Officer, Ryan Koslen, reported that Mizzou Athletics sold 1,745 season tickets this year, but their data doesn’t disaggregate between youth (<18) and senior ticket (>65) numbers, as they have the same price point. Regardless, I have been to - at my best estimate - 7 or 8 of MU’s 12 home games as of January 22, and my obvious eye test supports my claims, so I decided to talk with some folks who were generous enough to tell me about their interest in Mizzou Women’s Hoops, and what keeps them coming back.
Mary Jean Bozarth, a 79-year-old semi-retired hairdresser from Columbia, MO, has attended Mizzou WBB games since before fans even needed a ticket to get in. She recalls Cindy Stein taking over (she was there from 1998-2010), and start of season tickets sales— they used to come with a parking pass, that must be nice, huh? A fan of basketball in general, she was also a MBB season ticket holder from 1985... until this season. “Of all years to stop,” she said via email (her friend has a hard time with the hill in the cold— as an avid hill and cold temp disliker, I get it). As others have echoed, Bozarth called the women’s game more “pure basketball.” She added, “The game has gotten a faster sense of rules changes in the last few years.” She also enjoys the atmosphere, and they have fun fans that sit around them. Mary Jean also hopes to renew her volleyball season tickets next year as well.
Phil and Alice Shocklee, a retired former University of Missouri campus facilities administrator and a bookkeeper, both in their mid 70s, have been Mizzou WBB season ticket holders for over 15 years. The Shocklees, who live in Columbia, have a whole slew of people they regularly attend games with, including a couple friends and family members, and particularly enjoy the entertainment value of seeing the team at an inexpensive cost, as well as getting to spend time with their friends. Additionally, they just have developed an interest in the players, particularly Hayley Frank, Lauren Hansen, and Ashton Judd. “They’re just as exciting to watch and as talented as the men’s team, and we are able to have really good seats,” Phil said via email. (side note: The Shocklees are my best friend’s parents and were the reason I got this idea in the first place)
Joanna and John Perkins, a retired archivist and attorney who reside in Linn Creek (Lake of the Ozarks), have been season ticket holders since 1999. They originally bought four tickets so they could take their high school basketball-playing daughters and share the experience with them, and kept them after they graduated so they could take friends to the games. The couple even kept the tickets for a few years when they lived out of state, and even though they eventually gave them up when they found it difficult to make it back to MO, they quickly re-upped their tickets upon their return. Joanna talked via email about the friendships they’ve formed with the people sitting around them, so close that they often go out to lunch or dinner before games as often as they can.
“We originally bought tickets to share the experience with our daughters, but kept them to be supportive of those young women, just as we hoped others were supportive of our daughters in their sports,” Joanna wrote. “Our youngest played elementary school ball against Maya Moore, and club ball with her when she lived in Jeff City, and our youngest played college softball at William Jewel College, so supporting women athletes is just what we do. We had U Wyoming women’s b-ball tickets when we lived there (which was just after the Bowlerjack girls from Columbia played there), so we also just enjoy watching women’s basketball.”
Mark Cunningham, a 63-year-old power plant retiree from Cairo, MO, has had two season tickets right near the action in the fourth row for seven years now. When asked what made him decide to purchase season tickets, the answer was simple.
“Sophie,” he said via email. “What more can I say? Even though we have the same last name, we are not related. Her mom, Paula, and I are friends. Once Sophie came on board, the excitement grew and I decided to join the fun... Though now in the WNBA, she remains a great Ambassador for Mizzou.”
Though Sophie may have gotten Mark to the games, being able to watch the games live and feel ownership in the team continually makes it a great experience for him. “There seems to be more of a chess match with the women’s game,” he said. Additionally, Mark mentioned the price being quite reasonable, and liking the fact the players mingle with the fans. “When the team is successful or at least competitive they are fun to watch,” he said.
Now he enjoys watching Sara-Rose Smith and has a lot of respect for the game Dembele, Gilbert, and Frank plays. “Judd is going to be special,” he added.
Carl Wermuth, an 82-year-old retired teacher from Troy, MO, attends the games with his sister-in-law. This is his first year for WBB tickets but has had football tickets since the late 1970s. Carl’s brother Bob and sister-in-law Gloria went to school with and are good friends of Hayley Frank’s grandfather, and when Bob passed in the fall of 2021, Carl bought tickets to take her to the games so Gloria could keep up with the team. The reasoning for buying them? To see Hayley, of course, who they’d been watching since high school. And it’s nice to get to see the Franks at the games.
Terri Slaughter, a Memphis, MO high school science teacher and former Mizzou softball player, started attending occasional women’s basketball games 15-20 years ago, but when her kids got older and Mizzou joined the SEC, the family got season tickets. They wanted to watch the big-name coaches come through.
“Now that we have been going,” she said via email, “I have enjoyed watching how Robin develops players, and the Mizzou players improve... We will most likely keep the tickets until we move too far away to go, or ‘age out.’”
The Slaughters are such fans of the sport in general, that even if they do move, they will most likely buy season tickets to another women’s program close to them. They also are season ticket holders to Mizzou Softball and purchase tickets to the Women’s College World Series every year.
“We both think it is important to support women’s programs, equality won’t happen without support,” Slaughter said. “I watch women’s sports every chance I get— basketball, softball, soccer, volleyball... amazing athletes and they need our support.”
June DeWeese, a former Mizzou librarian, has been a season ticket holder for more than a decade and enjoys sitting with her friends at the games. June has enjoyed women’s basketball since she was in high school, and really enjoys watching Missouri play and the way they interact with each other.
“Coach P,” June said via email, “is outstanding in every possible way. She truly loves her players and guides and coaches them both on and off the court.”
You’ll notice that many of the people I talked to mentioned having a connection to the team. Haley Troup also mentioned this in my conversation with her. In her years with the team, she said, and probably since Coach P has been there, the team has always made an effort to get to know the fans. They mingle with them after games and stop to introduce themselves to others in the gym. They have conversations and try to get to know a little about who they’re talking to when they get stopped in public. This approach is likely what makes Mizzou Arena and the fanbase so special.
I had plenty of others reach out as well that didn’t fall into my age parameters, and it was truly lovely to hear what fans had to say. It seems that the Tigers, regardless of their competitiveness in the SEC from year to year, have a loyal fanbase who will support them through thick and thin. Here’s hoping the rest of the season pans out and these fans are rewarded for their immense loyalty.
So many thanks to the fans and to Haley Troup for help with this piece. The response was truly incredible. Special thank you to: Mary Jean Bozarth, Phil & Alice Shocklee, Joanna & John Perkins, Terri Slaughter, Nann Green, Carl Wermuth, June DeWeese, and Mark Cunningham for your time.