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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Badger women’s sports fans most loyal, formidable in NCAA

No other athletic program has had three women’s games with over 8,200 attendees this season. Badger women have cleared 14,000 twice.

On Feb. 3, the Badger women’s ice hockey team skated out on the ice of the Kohl Center to a crowd seven times larger than the capacity of their usual LaBahn Arena. This was the seventh “Fill the Bowl” night — a game that contends for the NCAA’s most-attended women’s hockey game every time it’s played — and the first since the Badgers tied Ohio State 1-1 in 2020 in front of 14,361 fans.

Despite being blanked 1-0 by St. Cloud State, this year’s “Fill the Bowl” night was the second most-attended women’s NCAA hockey game ever, with 14,430 fans in the stands. Because it coincided with the NHL All-Star break, it was that day’s most-attended hockey game in the world.

The title of largest crowd at an NCAA women’s hockey game is also held by the Badgers, when in 2017 they “filled the bowl” for another game against St. Cloud State and attracted 15,359 fans to the Kohl Center.

In fact, as of the 2019-20 NCAA women’s hockey season, the top six most-attended games of all time took place in Madison. After this month’s game against St. Cloud State, it is now seven. Full-season attendance data also places the Badgers as the most-attended women’s hockey program for 12 years between 2004 and 2020, beaten out only by Minnesota.

Wisconsin has topped 10,000 fans at a women’s game six times, even exceeding it by margins as great as 5,000. No other women’s college hockey program has ever had more than 7,000 attendees. 

The most-attended non-collegiate women’s hockey game recorded was a 2022 matchup between the U.S. and Canada, which drew 14,551 fans to Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena. This means the Badgers hold the title for the most-attended women’s hockey game in history.

The women’s hockey regular season came to an end on Feb. 19, and the Badgers finished with a staggering average attendance of 3,014. That exceeds second-place Minnesota by nearly 1,000 — and most shockingly, exceeds LaBahn’s capacity by 800 fans. 

With the average elevated by the nearly 15,000 people who came to the Kohl Center earlier this month, the Badgers finished the season filling the stands to an unbelievable average capacity of 132.6%. Despite finishing in second place, Minnesota could only fill its stadiums 61.2% on average. No other school broke 50%.

But Wisconsin women’s athletics have more to boast about than just hockey. The university’s dominant volleyball team took home its first national championship in 2021, and in doing so, the Badgers and the Nebraska Cornhuskers set the all-time attendance record for volleyball. In total, 18,755 people showed up to cheer for Big Ten volleyball in the 2021 NCAA Championship in Columbus, Ohio.

Wisconsin is also the owner of the NCAA volleyball regular-season attendance title, which they secured this past season when the Florida Gators came to Madison and narrowly beat the Badgers in five sets. The volleyball team drew 16,833 fans to watch them play in the Kohl Center for the first time since 1998.

Nebraska’s powerhouse volleyball team has led the NCAA in total attendance by season since 2013, but Wisconsin has been right there in competition with them. In the 2021 season, Wisconsin drew a total of 142,571 fans to its home games, less than 5,000 behind the Cornhuskers.

Despite the performance of Badger women’s basketball waning in recent years — they finished 8-21 last season — 8,217 fans showed up to watch a heartbreakingly close loss to Northwestern in the Kohl Center on National Girls & Women in Sports Day. 

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Although incomparable to the numbers attained by recent champions like the volleyball and ice hockey teams, it is impressive to see such a showing for a program that hasn’t had a winning record in a dozen long seasons, and that is currently posting its lowest attendance on average since the 1993-94 season.

What sets UW-Madison apart from all other NCAA women’s athletics programs is not its excellent performance in attracting fans to any one sport, although its dominance in ice hockey in particular is unparalleled. What is impressive is how the Badgers, exponentially more so than any other collegiate athletics department, are able to do this across sports. 

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Cormac LaLiberte

Cormac LaLiberte is the current editor of the college news desk. He is a junior studying linguistics, and has previously reported primarily on social issues pertaining to UW-Madison. Get in touch on Twitter @CormacLaLiberte.

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