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LADY UTE HOOPSTERS PROVE BEST THINGS ARE FREE - FOR NOW

EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW how the Lady Utes are doing it. No, not the 20 wins. The 17,000 fans. Never mind that the Utes are playing good basketball. So what. They always have, and what did it get them? You could've fired a shotgun into the stands and no one would have been

hurt. No, the really strange thing is that people are actually watching the Lady Utes play basketball these days.If anything, you figure the basketball market has been tapped out by now. Surely the NBA, the colleges, the high schools, the CBA, the European leagues, Michael, Magic, Larry, Sir Charles, ESPN, Dick Vitale, etc., have sucked every last dollar, every fan, every spark of interest out of the sport.

Getting into the basketball business now would be like buying into frozen yogurt, video stores or computers. Nice thought. Too late.

But then along come the Lady Utes. Or rather the shrewd Ron (Gotcha) Goch. Suddenly, fans are coming out to watch women play basketball. Not to watch women in the traditional female athletic pursuits such as gymnastics, tennis, swimming and mud wrestling, mind you, but hoops.

Even before the Western Athletic Conference tournament has been played this week in the Huntsman Center, the Lady Utes already have nearly doubled their home attendance in one year to 17,527 - easily the biggest improvement in the women's game in NCAA history.

If 17,527 fans showed up at the Marriott Center for one men's game, they'd cancel the thing for lack of interest, but for the women this is another matter. At BYU, for instance, the Lady Cougars have drawn 5,557 fans at home for the season - an average of 463 per game. It's the basketball game that feels like a fireside. At Utah, the Lady Utes attracted nearly that many fans (5,300) just for one game - against BYU.

Quiz time. How do the Utes attract so many fans?

A. The Utes are just plain good (they've won 20 games for the sixth time in seven years); B. Most of the tickets are free; C. Mikki Kane's good looks; D. Ron Goch's promotional wizardry; E. All of the above, but especially D and C*.

Answer: E (*Editor's note: Item C. has suffered slightly since the regrettable announcement of a forthcoming marriage.)

Goch is Utah's rookie marketing and promotions coordinator. Translation: He creates ways to get people to basketball games. Goch is a combination of Zig Ziegler and Barnum and Bailey. He's dreamed every gimmick and every hook to get people to watch women play hoops. He and his promotional schemes are getting as much attention as the Lady Utes themselves. Goch & Schemes were featured in USA Today and the NCAA News. Michigan and Illinois (the universities, that is) called to see how he got the fans out. So did the people at Rubik's Cube and Telemarketing USA, figuring that what works for hoops should work for business.

For the record, Goch is in the Freebie Stage of his five-year marketing plan.

"If someone has never seen a woman's game, he doesn't want to pay to see one," says Goch. "We want them to see the product."

So he gives away thousands of tickets - many of them at a local burger joint. He's given away as many as 70,000 tickets to get 3,000 fans to one game. Eventually, he hopes to reach the final stage, which will be the real trick - actually selling the tickets.

If free tickets isn't enough of an enticement, there are others.

Goch has no budget so speak of, yet he has secured a free television commercial (starring, who else?, the statuesque Kane), posters (more Kane), full-color glossy game programs (and more Kane), contests and prizes (sorry, no dates with Kane). A year ago the Lady Utes had no sponsors; this year they have 15.

Goch has used the sponsorships to create a side show for the main show, although sometimes it's difficult to tell which is which. The halftime shows have consisted of the R.C. Willey Couch Potato Shot of the Night - fan wears a robe, sits on a couch, shoots a free throw, and wins either a $500 gift certificate or a sack of potatoes; Herman's Youth Slam Dunk Contest; Herman's Three-point Challenge; Benson's Trophys Doctor of Basketball Contest and Celebrity Shootout; The Morris Air Service Trip Blitz - 15 people catch frisbees thrown into the stands each game, advance to a final competition held at halftime of the WAC tournament championship game and the winner there wins a free trip to the women's Final Four.

There's method to this zaniness. Take the latter contest. The way Goch figures it, 15 winners each game adds up to 195 winners for the season; they return for the frisbee championship and naturally bring their friends and relatives to watch them. That's an additional 300 fans, which, in women's basketball, is a significant increase. Next season Goch plans to invite several professors to serve as guest coaches each game, sitting behind the bench and participating in pre-game, halftime and post-game meetings. That's about 100 additional fans for the season, and they have wives and children . . .

Want media coverage? Goch held a celebrity-media halftime basketball game. Want to borrow from an established women's crowd? Goch had Ute cheerleaders hand out free tickets at a gymnastics meet.

The Lady Utes are finding their own niche in an established men's sport. Or so they hope. For the first time in history, a women's basketball game - Utah vs. BYU - was televised locally by a network station.

For what it lacks in vertical leap and dunks, the women's game does offer certain advantages over the men's game. To wit:

- Great parking and no traffic jams. Sorry, no hikes to and from the parking lot, but you can park close and fast. For free.

- Great seats. There's no crowd and no reserve seating, so pick a seat, any seat. Pick more than one seat. Get comfortable. Put your feet on the chair in front of you.

- Bring the family/a date. The price is right. Free.

- There are no lines at the bathroom or at concessions.

But of course Goch hopes all this changes in the future. So come while it lasts.