Doug Bruno likes selling tickets.
But as much as the DePaul women’s basketball coach believes — like Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer — that offense sells tickets, defense wins games, and defensive rebounding wins championships, he understands there is more to the discussion when it comes to helping the sport grow.
Starting today and for the next two weeks, ESPN will take the lead in promoting the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and the sport to a bigger audience. As a result, Bruno and 63 other Division I coaches have a bigger platform to talk about the ways women’s basketball can grow.
Forty-three years experience give Bruno a bigger megaphone. His position in a major market — Chicago — and in a conference with a brand name — the Big East — adds to the message behind his comments: Women’s basketball needs help.
“Gender in America is something that is not understood,” Bruno said. “Women are discriminated in this country, and it is a fact.”
Bruno, who played for legendary DePaul men’s basketball coach Ray Meyer, has a unique perspective. He grew up at a time when Chicago had four daily newspapers trying to break sports stories in the Windy City. Bruno also will tell you he might have ended up as a sportswriter if he had received a phone call a day earlier. As it worked out, Bruno accepted a job as a basketball coach at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago one day before being told he had a job as a copy boy at one of those newspapers.
Basketball has been Bruno’s life ever since. For the last 29 consecutive years — 31 overall — Bruno has built DePaul into one of the nation’s most successful and respected programs. DePaul, Connecticut, Stanford, Tennessee, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma are the only women’s basketball programs that have advanced to 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments, so Bruno knows how to win at the highest level, but he has seen accomplished teams all but ignored by the national media.
Bruno hopes that continues to change. The NCAA women’s tournament has gone back and forth between playing on campuses for the first two rounds to neutral sites to pre-determined sites back to campuses. He sees the game improving every year and growing in nooks and crannies, like Starkville, where MSU has climbed to seventh in the nation in average attendance (6,793) this season.
Bruno said he supported the move back to allowing schools to play host to the first and second rounds because it will help sell more tickets. The downside of that could be seventh-seeded DePaul might have to play second-seeded Mississippi State on its home court if both teams win their first-round games today. A year ago, Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said 7,000 fans in Humphrey Coliseum sounded like 70,000. Those fans played a role in MSU’s 72-70 victory that secured the program’s second trip to the Sweet 16.
Bruno praised the work Schaefer has done in elevating MSU’s women’s program. He said he is thrilled to be back in the Southeast to see a burgeoning pocket of interest in the sport. But he doesn’t mince words that issues need to be addressed to help women’s basketball continue to grow.
Bruno understands the difficulties newspapers face in today’s digital world. He knows teenagers are raised in a culture defined by Twitter, Instagram, and other social media outlets. But Bruno feels the media can do more to help women’s basketball. He also believes greater offensive production is one way the women’s game can appeal to a wider audience.
That is only part of the solution.
“At the grass roots level, if every single program would understand that it is everybody’s job to sell tickets and every player’s job — don’t point to the marketing director and say, ‘It’s your job, marketing director,’ ” Bruno said. “It starts with the coaches. If every single coach gets the players to take ownership, that is what we do at DePaul every single day. We have a great marketing department, but it doesn’t start and stop with the marketing department. Everybody has to work to sell this great sport.”
Bruno is doing his part. He related an anecdote when former Delaware All-American Elena Della Donne played with the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. He said he wrote a letter to every publisher in Chicago’s print media and then met with them to encourage them to give more coverage to women’s basketball. His pleas came at a time when the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox were down, so there was ample opportunity to cover something else.
Today, the landscape is even more crowded. In Starkville, though, Schaefer has created an oasis thanks to a blue-collar, aggressive mind-set on the court and a personal touch off it. The full package was on display Wednesday night at The Veranda in Starkville, where Schaefer mingled with fans and his players cracked jokes with the women’s basketball team’s play-by-play radio broadcaster in an hour-long program. The get-together had a homey feel to it. Schaefer and his coaches and players did their best to ensure the fans felt like they were a part of the success. That is part of what Bruno has been doing for more than 40 years.
Here’s hoping Bruno likes what he sees in Starkville and can help spread the word, and maybe even offer suggestions to other coaches based on what he sees at MSU. Women’s basketball is working and growing in StarkVegas. There’s no reason why it can’t find fertile ground in more pockets across the country.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.