By Carole Gieseke
Bill Fennelly saved the box score from the first game he ever coached at Iowa State. The official attendance was (drumroll, please): 310.
“It was pretty quiet,” Mary Pink, associate athletics director for marketing, says of that game. “There were not a lot of fans there, not a lot of atmosphere. I think they included the scorer’s table workers in that box score.”
The year was 1995, and Fennelly had just been hired as the women’s basketball team’s new, young head coach. He’d left a job he loved at the University of Toledo and took a pay cut to come back to the state of Iowa, where he and his wife, Deb, grew up.
“Honestly, we came thinking if it didn’t work out, I could go tend bar for my brother in Davenport,” Fennelly says, laughing. “We really didn’t know what we were getting into.”
This fall, Fennelly began his 21st year with the Iowa State women’s basketball program.
“If I would have told people [in 1995] that this is where we were going to be 21 years from now, no one would have believed it. No one.”
Building a fan base
In the year before Fennelly arrived, the women’s basketball program’s average attendance was 733 fans per game. Last season’s average was nearly 10,000, ranking second nationally behind Tennessee.
Today’s Cyclone fans are a devoted bunch, and the growth in their numbers has been nothing short of remarkable. But it didn’t happen overnight; there was no magic bullet to create Hilton Magic for the women’s program.
“I get asked all the time to speak at marketing conventions, and people want to know how did this happen and how did that happen, but there was no secret to it. It’s not like we came up with this master plan,” Fennelly says.
Fennelly had told then-athletics director Gene Smith in his interview that his number-one goal was to come out and sit on the bench and look up and have at least one person sitting in the balcony.
“I said that not really realizing how big Hilton was,” Fennelly says, chuckling.
The growth of the fan base began as a grassroots effort, with the Fennellys meeting as many people in the community as they could. The coach played golf with Cyclone Club members all over the state.
“I always had tickets in my pocket so that if I went somewhere and someone would say, ‘Hey, Coach, how are you?’ I could say, ‘Here’s two tickets.’ It was one day at a time, one person at a time.”
But it was two groups at opposite ends of the age demographic that made a huge difference in the growth of the women’s basketball fan base: little kids (with their parents) and the retirement community. Both of these groups appreciate the price point of the women’s games and enjoy the family-friendly atmosphere in Hilton Coliseum.
It started with Fellows Elementary School, which the Fennelly children attended. Fennelly looked at those students and asked himself, “How do you get the kids to come to the games? They can’t drive themselves.” So he created a program – The Lil’ Clone Club (now called Jr. Cyclone Club) – where the kids got in free, but the parents had to buy a seat to bring them to the games. Fennelly’s goal was always to make a women’s basketball outing less expensive than going to a movie.
And then there was Green Hills Retirement Community in Ames. Longtime women’s basketball fan and Green Hills resident Kathryn Engel was so dedicated to the program that she would buy tickets and give them away to other residents so that they could fill a Green Hills bus and get convenient transportation to the games. Then it became two busloads, and Fennelly and his players grew more and more connected to the residents. Today the team still visits Green Hills annually to sign posters and chat with the residents.
Fennelly’s coaching philosophy focuses on academics, athletics, and character. Those tenets strengthen not only the student-athletes, but also the fan base.
“When we recruit kids, we talk about ABC: You’re going to get a great academic environment, you’re going to get a great basketball environment, and you’re going to get a community environment that’s connected,” Fennelly explains. “I want [to recruit] student-athletes who understand how privileged they are to go to this school, to wear the jersey. I want our fans to feel that they’re proud to say they’re rooting for that young person.”
The tradition of the program is important to Fennelly. Every day, he emphasizes “the Iowa State way” of doing things. Every day, he talks to his players about their academics and about how important it is to be appreciative and interact with fans.
“This is a small town. [I tell the players] if you’re at Coldstone ice cream and a little girl wants to talk to you, you better talk to her. You can’t just be, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ That’s not how we do things.”
Every student-athlete who has completed her eligibility under Fennelly has graduated from Iowa State with a degree. That’s the expectation; that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
“I tell the kids when I recruit them: ‘You’re going to hear a lot about all the great things that are going to happen at Hilton, but the greatest thing that’s going to happen at Hilton is to walk across the stage as an Iowa State graduate. That’s where the magic is.’”
A new game
Social media has changed the way Cyclone athletics has communicated with its fans. And Fennelly is a master. His Twitter account has more than 12,000 followers. The Cyclone women’s basketball program has 13,500 Twitter followers and more than 10,000 Facebook likes.
“On Twitter, you see Coach Fennelly’s personality,” Pink says. “You really see who he is as a person and how much he really appreciates our fan base. He’s a marketer’s dream, to be honest.”
Fennelly sees social media as one more way to connect with and thank the
“I’m on Twitter a lot,” he says. “It’s been a really good thing for us. Even the little stuff, like I’ll tweet out that it’s somebody’s birthday or one of our former players had a baby. People love that.”
But even with all the grassroots fan growth and personal touches and social media, ISU women’s basketball would not be a national leader in attendance if not for one important thing: winning teams.
In 20 seasons, Fennelly has averaged 22 wins per season (434-206). He’s guided the Cyclones to an unprecedented nine-straight NCAA appearances, one of just 10 schools to do so.
“Bottom line, you want that feel-good attitude of a winner,” associate head coach Jodi Steyer says. “I hate to say it, but it’s huge. You can be great people, but if you don’t show results it’s not going to be fun. When those wins come, it’s a great environment.”
Fred Hoiberg may have been the Mayor, but Bill Fennelly is the Dean of the Big 12 women’s basketball coaches.
“I’m the old guy,” he says. “I think I may be the only coach on the staff that Jamie [Pollard] didn’t hire.” Fennelly has been through six men’s basketball coaches, three athletic directors, and three university presidents. He’s seen the university’s enrollment go from 24,400 students in 1995 to 36,000 in 2015. He’s endured throat cancer that required him to stop speaking – which was really hard on everyone, he said. But the fan support during his treatment, he says, was “incredible.”
Fennelly says the past 20 years have been amazing.
“Iowa State University is like a big, beautiful state-fair-winning pie. We’re a very, very, very little piece of that, but I think we’ve added something.”