Faithful fans flock to see U. gymnasts, put school near record
Gymnastics » They will likely be the first non-basketball women's team to lead the NCAA in average attendance.
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As an Olympic athlete, Canadian Gael Mackie has traveled around the world competing in various countries and in countless numbers of arenas.

However, she'd never seen an atmosphere like the one that greeted her when she attended the Utah-Florida gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center in 2007.

"It was insane," she said. "The arena was filled with people. I remember thinking, 'Wow, there are more people here than there were at the Olympics or the World Championships.' It's one of the many reasons I came here, for the fans."

The fans have continued to flock to the Huntsman Center so faithfully that the Utes have a chance to become the first non-basketball women's team to lead the NCAA in season attendance average Friday when Utah hosts rival BYU at 7 p.m.

The Utes, who are averaging 14,049 fans this season for home meets, need a crowd of 12,474 or more to become the highest-attended women's sport this season.

Utah also can break its own NCAA average attendance record of 13,861, set in 2009.

Drawing fans to his sport has been a long-term priority for Utah coach Greg Marsden and he knows setting the mark tonight would have significance beyond Salt Lake City.

"Gymnastics struggles for exposure and we all know how important those things are for us for the sport as a whole," he said. "I'm excited about it. I realize you can never take things for granted and it's the end of spring break so you never know, but it would be a wonderful thing and a great experience for our seniors."

Fearing some fans might be discouraged from attending because they believe the meet is sold out, the Utes have spread the word this week that tickets still are available. Utah ticket manager Zack Lassiter has encouraged fans to buy their tickets ahead of time to avoid a crush of buyers in the hour before the meet.

"We'll do our best to get everyone in," he said.

The Utes set an NCAA attendance record for a single meet earlier this season when 15,552 watched the Utes defeat rival Georgia. Whether the Utes can top that mark is questionable, given that it is spring break and many sports fans in Salt Lake City might be occupied with the NCAA basketball tournament.

That the program is in position to reach attendance highs this season is remarkable, given the Utes are struggling to match their own standards of success.

This season the Utes have fallen out of the Top 10 rankings for the first time since the polls were tracked starting in 1984 and they've suffered three losses for the first time since 2007.

Still, the fans have continued to show up on Friday nights. Scott Monson, a season ticket holder since 1983, says loyalty exists because of the tradition of the program. The Utes have won 10 national titles, have qualified for every NCAA Championship, have three second-place finishes and have two third-place finishes in the past three years. Moreover, the meets are often competitive and a virtually guaranteed night of fun, he said.

It's why he has kept his season tickets and returns to Salt Lake City for several meets a year even though he has spent the past 16 years living in Los Angeles.

"I really enjoy gymnastics," he said. "You're there for an hour and a half, which is important for some fans who don't want to spend a lot of time. Greg opens up the arena hours early for those who want to watch warm-ups and it's that tradition. Fans recognize the tradition of the program."

Marsden made his program a draw by not only winning 10 national titles but actively promoting the sport in the community.

Those promotions have continued, although Marsden isn't quite as hands-on as he has been in the past with the addition of assistant marketing director Jennifer Binkley, who has overseen promotions the past three years.

She has enlivened the gymnasts' intros, created a kids zone and crafted other promotions to draw fans to the program. In the meantime, the Utes have continued to be their best promoters by being active in community schools and by being some of the most accessible athletes on campus for fans. Recruiting fans at an early age means followers often form lifelong allegiances to the sports, preventing some of the bandwagon effect other sports have, Marsden believes.

"We've developed a very loyal following," he said. "But we work as hard as ever at it to try and get people in the stands."

Getting to know the athletes on a personal level keeps fans coming back no matter what the win-loss record is, said fan John Bircumshaw, who is a season ticket holder for basketball, gymnastics and football but calls gymnastics "his" sport. Winning is still important to Bircumshaw, but the personable level of gymnastics is what makes the sport different from others.

"There are more than 80 athletes on the football team and gymnastics has 12 athletes, so you get to know them and all their families," said Bircumshaw, who often leads cheers in the stands. "The friendships don't end. You take a look at this year when we've been ranked in the lower 10 and at No. 11 twice and the attendance hasn't dropped. But it's family-oriented and people still have fun."

Utah has been so successful in drawing fans that programs such as Georgia and Alabama studied what Marsden has done and implemented their own similar plans with success.

Before she retired last year, Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan credited Marsden with having more influence on collegiate gymnastics than anyone else.

Now the Utes have a chance to make an impact beyond gymnastics.

lwodraska@sltrib.com

Comparing attendance: Utah, Alabama, Georgia

2009

Utah » 13,861

Alabama » 10,484

Georgia » 9,720

2008

Utah » 12,771

Alabama » 12,141

Georgia » 9,921

2007

Utah » 11,297

Alabama » 11,284

Georgia » 9,518

2006

Utah » 12,747

Alabama » 12,654

Georgia » 9,484

2005

Utah » 11,300

Alabama » 10,570

Georgia » 8,915

No. 11 Utah vs. BYU

Today, 7 p.m.

About the meet » Both teams are coming off losses; the Utes lost at Florida last week and BYU lost Monday to SUU. Utah seniors Daria Bijak, Jamie Deetscreek, Annie DiLuzio and Beth Rizzo will be honored before the meet. ... Utah is 40-0 against the Cougars in Salt Lake City.

Elsewhere » SUU and Utah State compete Saturday in the WAC Championships in Fullerton, Calif. Senior Elise Wheeler is the defending all-around champion.

Utah gymnastics season tickets sold

2010 » 5,916

2009 » 5,618

2008 » 4,802

2007 » 4,751

2006 » 4,440

MWC men's basketball home attendance average

2009-10 » 8,176

2008-09 » 8,234

2007-08 » 8,385

2006-07 » 8,260

2005-06 » 7,777

No. 11 Utah vs. BYU

Today 7 p.m.