October 16, 2023
‘Women’s sports is at a different level right now’: Sights and sounds from a record-setting Iowa-DePaul exhibition game
Over 55,000 fans packed Kinnick Stadium on Sunday
From Dr. Christine Grant and C. Vivian Stringer’s vision nearly 40 years ago to break the women’s college attendance record to Lisa Bluder’s idea last spring to host a game in the football stadium, Iowa has shown unwavering support for women’s sports.
The Hawkeyes helped set the NCAA women’s basketball single-game attendance record on Sunday as 55,646 fans showed up to an exhibition game against the DePaul Blue Demons at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. The previous record was 29,619, set in the 2002 national title game between Connecticut and Oklahoma in San Antonio’s Alamodome.
“You set a goal for Hawk fans, and they’re gonna come through for you,” Bluder, who is in her 24th year as Iowa’s head coach, told reporters after the game. “Everybody just wanted to be a part of something special, see something they had never seen before and have the first opportunity to see this team play this year.”
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Coming off its first appearance in a national championship game in April, Iowa defeated DePaul 94-72 behind reigning National Player of the Year Caitlin Clark’s triple-double of 34 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Anaya Peoples led DePaul with 19 points and five rebounds.
But the day was about much more than basketball. Proceeds benefited the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, which towers behind the stadium. Following the football team’s popular tradition of “The Wave,” everyone in the stadium waved to the children in the hospital at the end of the first quarter. A $250,000 check was later presented to the hospital.
“Today was not only to get better for our team, but to showcase this great sport that we have,” Bluder said.
She came up with the idea last spring after 9,000 fans gathered at the Pentacrest, an area in the center of campus, to celebrate the best season in program history.
“They’re not even going out for a game. They’re coming out just to see the team and to celebrate the success,” she said. “So I thought, What could we do? We’ve sold out Carver [Hawkeye Arena] already. What were the possibilities?”
Once the administration agreed to her idea, Bluder knew just who to call.
“I knew [DePaul head coach] Doug Bruno was the right guy to do this. He’s been around for a long time and he’s all about promoting women’s basketball,” she said. “Doug’s been around our game for so long, and he’s always willing to do anything to improve the game. He’s always been that way.”
Bruno, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2022, is in his 38th year coaching at his alma mater. In 1978, he coached the Chicago Hustle in front of 7,824 fans in Milwaukee in the inaugural game of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL).
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‘I want to carry on her legacy’
This wasn’t the first time Iowa has been in the discussion for the college women’s basketball attendance record. In 1985, Iowa head coach C. Vivian Stringer had challenged fans to fill Carver Hawkeye Arena during a key Big Ten matchup against Ohio State on Feb. 3.
Stringer, who came to Iowa City in 1983 after leading Pennsylvania-based HBCU Cheyney State to the national championship game in 1982, made it a goal to increase the Hawkeyes’ profile. Iowa had averaged about 400 fans per game before her arrival — ranking 299th out 302 teams nationally.
The legendary coach, who retired in 2022 from Rutgers, got approval from then-Iowa women’s athletic director Christine Grant to promote the game by appearing in local commercials that urged fans to support the women’s program.
And on that cold winter day, fans came in droves. Although the official paid attendance was 14,821, the final tally was 22,157, as no fan was turned away, filling the aisles and concourse. Grant, who was instrumental in implementing Title IX in 1972, received a letter of reprimand from the university for breaking the fire code. The letter proudly hung on Grant’s wall as a badge of honor until she retired in 2000.
The Hawkeyes lost that game, 56-47, to the Ohio State team coached by Tara VanDerveer, who has since become the all-time winningest coach in women’s college basketball and led Stanford to three national championships.
Grant, who died on Dec. 31, 2021, at age 85, would have been proud of how far the women’s game has come, Bluder said.
“Today would have been really special for her,” Bluder said after Sunday’s game. “I keep a picture of Dr. Grant on my desk because I want to carry on her tradition. I want to carry on her legacy in every way that I can. And certainly, this was one of them.”
Alumnae on hand
Former Iowa players Megan Gustafson and Kathleen Doyle were on hand Sunday to witness their alma mater’s historic moment. Both were Big Ten Players of the Year (Gustafson in 2018 and 2019 and Doyle in 2020) and led the Hawkeyes to the Elite Eight in 2019.
“It’s really amazing just to see where the program has gone since I’ve been here and just to see how much support there is, not just [in] the state of Iowa, but across the nation,” Gustafson told The Next. “I’m just so happy that everyone’s seeing Iowa and what they’re capable of and am really happy for the players and coaches.”
Gustafson, who was the 2019 Associated Press and Naismith National Player of the Year, is recovering from a procedure to help with plantar fasciitis, which she has been dealing with for almost two years. After her second season with the Phoenix Mercury this summer, she played in the EuroLeague qualifiers last month for the London Lions before heading home to Wisconsin. She will be out another four weeks but plans to go back to London this week to continue her rehabilitation there.
She also received her passport this fall to play on the Spanish national team. Although she may not play in the EuroBasket qualifiers in November as she recovers, she will play in the Olympic qualifiers in February.
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Doyle, who played for the Indiana Fever in 2020 and is now teaching skill development to younger players in her hometown of Chicago, told The Next she is proud of her alma mater and how Clark, her successor at point guard, is elevating basketball and women’s sports.
“The program just keeps raising its level and I love it,” she said. “[Clark] is doing amazing things for Iowa but also just the game in general. I’m her biggest cheerleader, honestly.”
Tania Davis, another player on the 2019 Elite Eight team, was also on hand: She was named Iowa’s director of player development this summer after coaching stints at Clemson and Omaha.
“To be able to have my first game back in front of more than 50,000 people, it’s crazy,” Davis told The Next. “It’s just surreal just to see where the program was and where it’s going. I’m super excited to be back.”
“They paved the way for me and so I think our team just helped continue to carry on that legacy on, and I’m so glad that we passed the torch and this is what [it] has become,” she said.
Women’s sports on the rise
Crossover at Kinnick is the second college women’s sporting event held in a football stadium in the past few months.
The Nebraska volleyball team broke the national attendance record for a women’s sporting event on Aug. 30, when 92,003 fans packed into Memorial Stadium.
“Women’s sports is at a different level right now,” Bluder said. “I think we’re seeing the effects of the Title IX babies, who now are moms and grandmas, and they understand the value of sports and want their kids to embrace that and celebrate it. Not only little girls, but little boys, too. Little boys are growing up learning how good women’s athletics are.”
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Clark echoed the sentiment that women’s sports are gaining a broader appeal due to more exposure.
“I think people are starting to understand how amazing women’s sports are and how fun it is to watch, and it’s just going to continue to grow,” she told reporters after the game. “It has so many good players in the game, whether it’s volleyball or basketball, softball or gymnastics. The viewership continues to go up. You continue to give them the platform and they’re going to deliver.”
While the majority of the 55,000-plus fans were cheering for the Hawkeyes, DePaul also had a showing of enthusiastic supporters.
Tim Anderson and Ethan Brock made the three-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago on Sunday to sit in the front row and cheer loudly for their Blue Demons.
“We’re here to support our women’s team. They’re fantastic,” Anderson told The Next. “We’re just trying to make sure there’s some support out here for our ladies as well.”
The duo are starting an organization at DePaul to support the men’s and women’s teams. “We want to revolutionize the student section and bring us back to where we used to be,” Anderson said.
Being part of the historic crowd at Kinnick was a great start to their mission.
“This is awesome to be a part of something like this. It’s amazing,” Brock told The Next.