Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Mountain West Conference Basketball Championships in Las Vegas. I spent the first four days of the tournament at the arena, observing and interacting with the fans that attended.

Something unique to the Mountain West is that both the men’s and women’s games are held at the same week-long event. While the men’s games were consistently more well-attended than the women’s games, I was fascinated by the number of fans who traveled from outside Las Vegas to show their support for both of their schools’ squads. Wyoming and New Mexico, in particular, had a huge number of fans turn out to support both their men’s and women’s teams.

In talking with those fans, contrary to what I would assume, I learned that many (possibly most) of them were neither parents of players, nor alums… they were just fans. When explaining their dedication, most of these fans returned to a common theme: community.

From volunteering at charity events and good causes to interacting with fans after games, these teams have endeared themselves to their communities. And it’s not just the players taking part; it’s the coaches too. In fact, as the team’s primary consistent figurehead year to year, as players come and go, a coach’s loyalty to his/her community is often what ultimately builds that bond with fans over time.

The sport of basketball has a unique opportunity to really connect with fans. Aside from service initiatives, which are often implemented at the full athletic department level, basketball has several qualities that lend it a unique advantage:

Grassroots Friendly – Basketball is an extremely relatable and attainable sport, for anyone. There is little equipment involved, and players come from all walks of life. Young people play, senior citizens can play, games can be pickup or organized… basically, anyone can be a part of the sport.
Small Roster – Basketball teams are much smaller than football teams, making it easier for fans to know individual players, recognize them, and actually see them play (versus stand on the sidelines).
Arena Intimacy – Basketball arenas are not huge, especially when compared to football stadiums. Even fans with modest seats have great views of the action, and feel close to the game. It increases the engagement and attachment.

Anything teams can do to capitalize on these elements to build the fan-program bond helps, but teams also shouldn’t hesitate to think outside the box to find ways to make their fans feel like part of the experience. UCLA, Wisconsin and Oklahoma are three programs that have done this well (and cost-effectively).

However you do it, it’s critical to make your program part of your community – this will draw fans in and then keep them in for the long term.