In a meeting among athletic directors in the O-K Red Conference last month, five of the six voiced concerns about fan attendance at basketball games on Friday evenings throughout the winter.
The lone exception was at Grand Haven, as athletic director Robin Bye continues to be proud to proclaim that fan support has remained loyal to both boys and girls basketball programs at the school.
“We’ve been fortunate,” he said. “The girls basketball run (to the Class A state title) last season has been a big part of it. But really, the community support for both our boys and girls teams has been very good.”
Fans sporting the Blue and Gold for the Bucs were in full force at Michigan State’s Breslin Center, where Grand Haven’s girls captured the program’s first-ever state title on March 17.
“I was told by (MHSAA officials) that of the 16 schools in all the classes in the semifinals and finals, take the other 15 and we outdrew all of the teams combined,” Bye said. “That’s really remarkable and a testament to the loyalty of our fan base.”
Unfortunately, not every school can claim that their fan bases support boys and girls hoops teams equally. It’s evident to Grand Haven girls coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer that fan support for girls basketball isn’t as strong at other schools throughout West Michigan from her conversations with coaches and seeing with her own eyes the difference in the stands.
“Fortunately for us, we have great support from our fans, but it’s not the case at some schools,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see.”
It became an issue when the O-K Conference schools began alternating basketball schedules for Friday evening games three years ago. This year, the 50 member schools of the O-K Conference will have boys basketball games played first on Fridays — usually at 6 p.m. — followed by girls games tipping off around 7:30 p.m. With this scenario, the problem of fans emptying out of the stands upon the conclusion of the boys game is a problem at many West Michigan schools.
Coaches and athletic directors have voiced displeasure over the yearly switch, saying it’s also difficult changing and adjusting to a new routine developed over the course of the season. Kowalczyk-Fulmer said her program was asked to take a survey concerning the matter last season.
“I voted us to play first, and all 40 girls in the program, every single one, wanted to play first,” she said. “They enjoy the fact that there’s a big crowd in the second half, they can play, and then go in the stands after the game and cheer the boys on.”
Despite the consensus voting from the O-K Red girls teams, the policy of alternating schedules hasn’t changed and does not appear to be affected in the future.
“I guess us complaining about it hasn’t done anything,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “I guess I’m not a part of the decision making.”
The alternating schedules on a yearly basis in the O-K Conference is in response to the Michigan Gender Equity group that fought — and won — the decision to have Michigan’s prep sports seasons changed, namely girls basketball being moved to the winter and volleyball to the fall.
“Part of that agreement was that our Friday night basketball games would alternate every other year,” Bye said. “It was mandated throughout the O-K Conference.
“The conferences who do not follow that practice run the risk that these equity groups would come after them, or what we’ve seen, come after the individual schools,” Bye added. “It’s a very touchy subject.”
For example, the Lakes Eight Conference, which includes Spring Lake and Fruitport, has kept the same schedule on Friday evenings, with the girls playing first, followed by the boys.
“We haven’t heard a negative word about it,” said Spring Lake athletic director Cavin Mohrhardt. “(All of the schools in the Lakes Eight) have always believed that it’s working the way it is, so why change it? We feel it’s the best for the kids, it’s best for the fans, and it’s best for the school.
“What I’ve seen in our students come in late (for the girls game) and stay throughout the boys.”
Mohrhardt has seen plenty of examples where the boys first, girls second model is struggling, including the Lakers’ season-opening contest at Allendale on Tuesday and with conversations with Coopersville coaches, who say they favor the Lakes Eight’s model. Both schools are members of the O-K Blue Conference.
The Lakes Eight Conference is mirrored by the River Valley Conference, which is home to Western Michigan Chrsitian.
“It just keeps it simple keeping the same schedule,” said Fred VandenBrand, WMC’s assistant athletic director. “Our girls and their coaches don’t want to see 200 people walk out before the start of their game. They like it how it is. Everybody does.”
At the college level, the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference — home to Grand Valley State — has also followed in the O-K Conference’s decision-making. They’ve alternated men’s and women’s games and this year, the men play their league games first, followed by the women.
GVSU athletic director Tim Selgo reported that tickets sales declined 15 to 20 percent for both the men’s and women’s games two years ago, when the men’s games were originally switched to the first game of a doubleheader.