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Moon Sheds Some Light: UCLA women’s basketball deserves more local support

UCLA women’s basketball team stands in a huddle. The Bruins are currently 17-5 across the season after collecting two losses last week against Colorado and No. 7 Utah. (Anika Chakrabarti/Photo editor)

By Francis Moon

Feb. 3, 2023 12:06 a.m.

This post was updated Feb. 3 at 1:59 p.m. 

Unlike most other collegiate arenas, Pauley Pavilion doesn’t have room to hang anything but a national championship.

Eleven banners are displayed in the rafters alongside some of the most iconic jerseys and names in all of men’s college basketball history. A few more hang beside them, representing around 29 more combined titles in men’s and women’s gymnastics or volleyball.

The ambiance of Westwood’s illustrious home arena is often accentuated by the fiery home crowd, painting the stands blue and gold with lines sometimes spanning more than half a mile the night before a big matchup.

With a capacity of just under 14,000 at home, the eleven-time NCAA men’s basketball champions have filled an average of around 8,300 seats and 2,000 more during conference play this season – both of which rank second in the Pac-12 – while the Bruins’ gymnastics home opener Jan. 31 set a record by coming just short of eclipsing the 8,000 mark.

One other team calls Pauley Pavilion home but has received a far cry from the respect afforded to the others from its home base.

The environment stands in stark contrast during a UCLA women’s basketball game, even though entrance is free for all students, with deals making general tickets cheaper than a pack of gum earlier this year. With an average of around 2,700 attendees per game, UCLA ranks fifth in the conference in home attendance – an improvement from 10th last season when it brought in an average of just more than 1,100.

The Bruins boast just one banner for a 1978 Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women championship during its nearly 50-year history, and the lack of local support for women’s basketball is one thing holding it back from adding another to start building an iconic status like its men’s counterpart.

As for the reason why that is, a few factors likely come into play.

Regardless of the sport, UCLA fans have a tendency to show up in numbers at full force only when the team is performing well or facing a high-profile opponent.

And despite the fact that coach Cori Close has led her team to the NCAA tournament in six of her 11 years at the helm – including a four-year streak of making at least the Sweet 16 from 2016-2019 – recency bias may play a factor concerning her team’s image around campus.

Last season, support for the Bruins reached a new low as the team struggled through injuries, COVID-19-related cancellations and poor performance on the court, culminating in a semifinal loss in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

The Bruins have turned the ship around in less than a year, however.

After entering into the season unranked, they have remained in the AP Top 25 since entering as No. 20 two weeks into the campaign. A 13-1 start to the season has faltered a bit as UCLA dredges through one of the consistently most competitive conferences in the nation, but the intrigue and potential that was lacking last season is undeniably still present at 17-5.

Even still, the blue and gold has fumbled its opportunities to truly put the country on notice, losing both its high-profile games against the top two teams in the nation, South Carolina and Stanford, because of second-half meltdowns.

Though the Bruins fell in the rankings again this week to No. 14 following an 0-2 road trip to continue this season’s road woes, now is when the home crowd is needed more than ever to step up and light a fire under the team.

(Esther Ma/Daily Bruin staff)
Fans cheer on UCLA women’s basketball in Pauley Pavilion. Despite averaging 2,700 fans in attendance, the blue and gold drew in 6,855 fans for their contest against Stanford. (Esther Ma/Daily Bruin staff)

This week, Close even resorted to begging UCLA’s student sections to show up and ignite more from the crowd.

Similar to the men’s basketball team, Close’s squad boasts a combination of exciting young talent and veteran prowess, currently holding an underdog status and the potential to make a legitimate run at the national title in March.

Headlined by a projected top-10 pick in the WNBA this year in senior guard Charisma Osborne, the team features arguably its best freshman class in program history with guards Kiki Rice and Londynn Jones, along with forwards Gabriela Jaquez, Lina Sontag and Christeen Iwuala all making an impact. Redshirt sophomore forward Emily Bessoir and graduate student guard Gina Conti have shown why they were sorely missed last year, while the team has done better at avoiding the injury bug compared to recent seasons.

But the unfortunate reality is that women’s basketball often doesn’t receive as much attention as its male counterpart, or even other collegiate women’s sports. However, programs such as Oregon, Connecticut and South Carolina have shown it’s possible to make women’s basketball a top attraction on campus.

There is no reason why a big market like UCLA can’t do the same.

Though some may argue that Westwood and Los Angeles simply offer more attractions than most other college towns, the Bruins failed to even crack the top 50 in home attendance last year.

This season, more than 12,000 people were in attendance for the blue and gold’s visit to the reigning national champions in South Carolina in late November, while the blue and gold’s matchup with Stanford drew a season-high 6,855 to Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 13.

A proud leading voice and advocate for women’s basketball, the late basketball legend Kobe Bryant, along with his daughter Gianna, were often spotted attending some of the Bruins’ home games. Bryant provided a tremendous boost to the visibility and respect of collegiate women’s basketball and the WNBA amongst peers and fans alike.

Close has also been a leading proponent of developing women’s basketball throughout her career, currently serving as the president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and a member of the USA Basketball coaching staff. When inequities between the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament bubbles went viral in 2021, Close said she missed the support Bryant gave to women’s basketball.

Similarly, the Bruins dealt with an arduous traveling schedule on commercial airlines during its WNIT run last year. The NCAA has consistently shown blatant favoritism, disrespecting the legacy of Bryant and other proponents of women’s basketball while disadvantaging women’s programs from truly blossoming.

With title aspirations and a bright future ahead, the Bruin faithful can help the blue and gold overcome those odds in the near future.

But banner or not, it’s long overdue for UCLA women’s basketball to get the respect it deserves around Westwood.

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Francis Moon | Sports senior staff
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats, while also contributing for Arts. He is a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats, while also contributing for Arts. He is a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.
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