RALEIGH, N.C. -- In the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference country, where Dean Smith became a coaching giant and many NBA stars began their careers, women's basketball is still a hard sell.
National rankings, winning records and postseason appearances don't seem to matter. The women's teams at Duke, North Carolina State and North Carolina are struggling to pull in fans.
"All three schools have struggled to develop a fan base they would like to have," said Doug Herakovich, editor of the Raleigh-based Women's Basketball Journal.
Nationwide, attendance at women's games has increased each of the past 15 years and broke 8 million last season for the first time.
Attendance has skyrocketed at women's games in New Mexico, Wisconsin, Southwest Missouri State, Oregon and UC Santa Barbara. Last year, the Big Ten, which has led the nation the last seven years, averaged 4,530 fans.
Before the ACC women's tournament, league teams averaged 2,072 fans a game, compared with 1,942 in 1996-97. Forty-three Division I teams did better.
N.C. State, a 1998 Final Four team, averaged 3,788 fans a game this year, best in the ACC, according to weekly statistics complied by the University of Wisconsin. Duke, which went to the 1999 Final Four, averaged 2,696 fans; North Carolina, the 1994 national champions, drew 2,372.
Some think the North Carolina schools lag because they are so close to each other and must compete with their men's programs and professional sports.
"I think that is what really hurts," Herakovich said. "Do I stay at home and watch the men on TV or leave home and watch the women play?"
Virginia, in the small college town of Charlottesville, leads the ACC in women's season-ticket sales and averaged 3,078 fan a game this year.
"Their location -- a little bit more isolated -- I think that is an advantage," said Bernadette McGlade, ACC commissioner for women's sports.
In the Research Triangle area encompassing Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, women's tickets are easier to get and cheaper than men's game tickets, but the chasm in attendance is striking.
When the North Carolina State and Duke men played, Cameron Indoor Stadium's 9,314 seats were sold out. The next night, the N.C. State women were home against Duke, and just 5,207 fans were at the 12,400-seat Reynolds Coliseum.
Herakovich suspects fans at schools that draw large crowds go to women's games because it's a way of life.
"I don't think any of the schools in the Triangle have been able to develop that situation," he said.
There have been flashes of intense interest, though.
In January 1991, 11,520 packed Reynolds Coliseum to watch Virginia beat the Wolfpack 123-120 in triple overtime, the biggest turnout for a women's game at Reynolds.
"Two weeks later the attendance was back to where it had been," Herakovich said.
Families with young children -- not students and longtime ticket-holders -- tend to be the core fans. Women's basketball may lack flashy one-handed slam dunks, but isn't wanting in 3-pointers, no-look passes and fastbreaks.
"If they haven't seen it at the Division I level, they think it's like their sister playing in the 1960s," said Tamara Flarup, women's sports information director at Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has appeared in the Top 25 and reached the NCAA tournament three of the last five years. And it shows -- 8,689 fans per game this season, seventh best in the nation.
New Mexico, a Mountain West team, climbed to sixth in national attendance with 9,162 a game this season after coach Don Flanagan turned a losing program into a winner.
McGlade thinks the ACC is ripe for a turnaround. She points to Sunday night in Chapel Hill when North Carolina's rematch with No. 9 Duke drew 8,654 to Carmichael Auditorium, which seats 10,000.
"This is a sport that needs wonderful marketing and promotions," said Jim Ervin, director of women's basketball marketing at North Carolina. "In 10 years, I would love to say, `Gosh this is where we are."'
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