April 28, 2009
TUCSON - How do you get half a million people to come watch college softball games?
To start with, you build a fine facility and make it the showcase ballpark in the game. Good up-close seating, nice sightlines, solid campus location. In the early 1990s, it was THE stadium in college softball, bar none.
Then, you start -- and continue -- to win games. That surely comes from coaching by Mike Candrea and staff, and by attracting elite players. What's better for a fan than counting on some success? There are few better attractions, in the spectating business. Eight national championships and 80 All-Americans later, it's a zenith in college softball.
"We wanted a place that's intimidating to visitors," head Coach Mike Candrea said. "We have it. If our heads are right, Hillenbrand is worth a run or two early on in any game," he said.
Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium debuted in February 1993 on the University of Arizona campus. William G. and Doby Hillenbrand, Arizona benefactors, helped get it done. Candrea, then an upstart college softball coach and newly crowned national champion (1991), helped with some vision about what a ballpark could be, and how a program should operate.
On Friday, May 9, 2008, some 16 years later, the 500,000th fan walked through the gates for the UA's 8-0 victory over No. 8 Stanford. That victory? It was the program's 466th in the park. Now it's up to 492. Measure that against 42 losses in Hillenbrand and it's a .921 winning percentage at home.
A few days ago in 2009, 17 years after the opening season, Arizona capped a 23-3 home schedule by welcoming a crowd of 2,406 to give it another 44,249 fans on top of the half million. And, Arizona blew its game-average attendance record away, posting a figure of 2,458 fans for 18 home dates in 2009.
That average likely may help Arizona lead NCAA Division I programs in attendance this year, a fact to be official after teams play host to final regular-season games, NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals later this month. The Cats annually have competed with Fresno State and, recently, Alabama, for top honors. The Crimson Tide, with 1,500 listed permanent seats, also has a park with twin hillside grassy areas where crowds have jammed - for a total of a stadium-record 3,122 for the `Bama senior day on Sunday.
In Tucson, many things -- music, in-game contests, outstanding weather, attractive schedules, Senior Day ceremonies with meaning, and considerable accrued tradition (such as NCAA Championship placards, a dozen Pac-10 title signs) -- all add to the ambience at Hillenbrand and bring fans. They come when it's hot, and when it's colder, rain or shine. A smattering of fans booed earlier at a suspended ASU game this year when it was announced over the public address system that play was called because of the wet weather.
"Hillenbrand is a great atmosphere. Everyone's done a nice job of capturing the intimacy of the park, and our fans are outstanding. There's not a better place in the country to play softball and I haven't had one kid since it opened who didn't want to play at home," Candrea says.
But it's difficult to look past the winning. The fact that a spectator could come and expect a victory more than nine out of 10 times (.921) is simply too powerful a draw. In one stretch from 2000 to 2002, the Cats won 70 consecutive games at the Rita. Other home winning streaks have reached 45, 29 and 28 games.
In 2009, Arizona drew 18 gates in excess of 2,000, with a season-high of 2,895 against California on April 18. The Cats home-opening weekend Wildcat Invitational tournament drew 6,763 fans in three days to average 2,254 right out of the gate. Typically, UA won all six games.
In 2008 the Cats drew a crowd of 2,832 to watch UA play an exhibition game against Team USA and Candrea's Olympic hopefuls on their Bound for Beijing tour of college campuses. The stadium record is a whopping 3,541 squeezed in on a warm evening game against Team USA in 2004 when the outfield seating sections were temporary and larger.
It didn't hurt that former UA All-Americans Jennie Finch, Lovie Jung and Caitlin Lowe were wearing the red, white and blue that 2008 night, but it didn't much matter. This year 2,100-plus showed up for every game. UA won 22 and lost 3.
The crowds show up for most any opponent, including top 30 crowds for games against UCLA, ASU, Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, New Mexico, Virginia Tech, Washington, Creighton and a number of NCAA opponents.
That consistency is the reason Arizona has led the nation in softball attendance - without tricking out the statistic by making appeals for `beat the record' nights -- for four years (1994, 1995, 2006, 2007) since Hillenbrand was built. The overall average crowd is about 1,500 per game each year since the '93 season. That first year patrons were getting used to the new digs - 731 of them per game after years of softball games before crowds of 100 or so at Ina Gittings Field, located on the same site but oriented the other direction.
The fan base is a mixed crowd but, to put it gently, mature. Plenty of people have found it an inexpensive, pleasant way to spend a couple of hours outdoors, enjoying top-level intercollegiate athletics. They're season-ticket holders, mostly. They're also decent students of the game, recognizing good play and according the opposition its occasional due.
In 2008, with its grandstand seating of about 1,500 chair-back or back-rested seats all sold for years, the marketing staff created 'Candrea's Corner' as a peg to put in the big section of permanent outfield bleachers installed for 2006. The result? Another hundred new season-ticket holders, with their own identity. The section helped the program set the season record each of the last two seasons
"Welcome to beautiful Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium" is what the public address announcer invokes in the pregame spiel, and it's not untrue. But since it was erected, college softball has exploded. The games used to be played on city park-like fields with minimal seating. Now, programs across the land have invested millions to build temples to the game. Many have the bells and whistles, but few have the tradition of Hillenbrand.
Indeed, Hillenbrand has since been eclipsed in some quarters, but it remains the Yankee Stadium of the sport. A lot of that reputation comes from the heritage built by eight national championships and a succession of All-American players who have played on the field, including five national player of the year honors.
More of it comes from the fact it's hard to beat the Cats in the place.
You could ask any of the half million people who know that with firsthand knowledge. Some of those people have been to nearly every game held in the park.
At last weekend's home finale, one patron was cited for her long-standing patronage - and given some warm applause with the wish for a special occasion on her pending 100th birthday.
Next year, a few weeks into the 2010 season, Arizona should be looking for another piece of history - the 500th victory in Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. You might want to be there.
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Softball Notes... The NCAA Softball Committee will announce the 64-team field and sites for the 2009 NCAA Championships at 7 p.m. (Tucson) Sunday, May 10 on the ESPNU cable channel, and the UA has put in bids to play host to Regional and Super Regional action the successive weekends afterward... Arizona has played host to NCAA Regionals 15 times, with 12 of those at Rita Hillenbrand, plus four Super Regionals (since that format began in 2005)... It's unlikely that both Arizona and Arizona State, the defending NCAA titlist, will be chosen as early-round sites, with the higher finisher in the league standings possibly in better stead. Last year Arizona traveled to Hempstead, N.Y., for the Regional before returning to Tucson to be host for the Super Regional, while the Sun Devils had both weekends in Tempe...