When Jessica Iwata flied out to right field to conclude the University of Hawaii’s stay in the Western Athletic Conference Softball Tournament Thursday in Fresno, Calif., you wonder if the idea of charging for admission to Rainbow Wahine games next season expired with it.
Until the disappointingly swift end to the Rainbow Wahine’s stay as WAC champions with back-to-back losses to New Mexico State and Fresno State, UH appeared on track for a return to the NCAA Regionals that had launched it to the magical College World Series experience of last year.
But with a 37-18 record and a quick exit from the WAC tournament, the Rainbow Wahine’s chances of an at-large invitation now are tape measure distant, at best.
And, that’s too bad because another run in the NCAA tournament could have done a lot for the emerging softball program.
The momentum, following last year’s record-setting 50-16 campaign, would have been huge in any number of areas. But especially in continuing to build a fan base.
The Rainbow Wahine have a dedicated hard-core following of a few hundred but, with their soaring success last year, had captured the imagination of many more, including fringe fans. Some of them dubbed “curious variety” by coach Bob Coolen mindful of those who initially wandered over on baseball nights to see what all the yelling was about and returned.
This year, for example, UH had been averaging about 780 fans per home game, even announcing more than 1,000 for a couple.
“I think the crowds were really good this year,” athletic director Jim Donovan said. Indeed, they were encouraging numbers considering the home schedule had few brand name or rivalry opponents.
Which is why the financially challenged athletic department was to take up the question of whether to return to charging admission next year. Once upon a time UH sold tickets but long ago gave up that enterprise when officials said it cost more to hire staff and security than the games were bringing in.
A return to the NCAAs for what would have been a fourth appearance in five years could have better positioned UH to sell both season and individual game tickets in 2012. Especially with marquee returnees like Kelly Majam, Iwata and Stephanie Ricketts, among others.
Donovan still plans to talk to Coolen about the admission issue. “We’ll still pencil it out and look at it,” Donovan said while acknowledging postseason elimination “will be a factor” in the decision.
Understandably, a lot of people around the program would hope UH doesn’t charge, the better to attract larger crowds and assure a home-field edge at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium. And there is certainly something to that.
But for the Wahine softball program to grow it will take money and commitment. Precisely the kind of investment the athletic department has discussed making if it feels softball can be a revenue-generating sport, contributing to a balanced bottom line. Not a profit maker but a sport that at least helps shoulder some of its load.
In that a look around Fresno State’s well-appointed Bulldog Diamond on the way out Thursday could have been a reminder of the next step UH would like, someday, to take.
Reach Ferd Lewis at email@example.com