TEMPE – Desert Financial Arena boomed with chants of “Betty! Betty! Betty!” as the Arizona State women’s basketball team battled Colorado on the court below. The chants weren’t to cheer on a player. The ASU student section, more full than usual for a women’s basketball game, was cheering for Betty White.
The game was just a few days after what would have been the beloved actress’ 100th birthday. White had passed away just weeks earlier, in December. Students held up giant cutouts of her face while decked out in T-shirts that read “Forks up for Betty,” provided by 942 Crew, Arizona State’s student section organization.
The celebration was a typical one for the 942 Crew, a student organization that was formed in 2012 to help increase turnout at ASU athletic events. The group, which is connected with Sun Devil Athletics, does this by creating fun themes for sporting event and offering everything from free T-shirts to food to students who attend.
With the women opening Pac-12 tournament play Wednesday and the men next week, fan support in Las Vegas could be particularly vital for teams in precarious positions to advance to NCAA Tournament play.
The crew may be best known for its Curtain of Distraction, which is designed to throw off opposing free throw shooters. Curtains are rolled out behind the basket and when the player goes to the line, weirdness ensues: kissing unicorns to dancing cows to Olympian Michael Phelps yelling in his swimwear and gold medal.
This event to celebrate the late Golden Girls actress, deemed the “Betty White-out,” was particularly effective and attention-grabbing, with student ticket sales exceeding typical numbers for a recent women’s game.
Six hundred students showed up, a high number during the COVID-19 pandemic and after a stretch of six straight postponed games.
It’s no secret that women’s sports historically draw a far smaller crowd than their male counterparts, and Arizona State basketball is no exception.
In the 2019-2020 season, before the COVID-19 pandemic began, ASU’s men’s basketball recorded a total attendance of 148,000, averaging over 9,000 a game. The women’s team totaled just over 49,000 attendees in the same year.
The 942 Crew believes it’s important to increase those numbers and get more students interested in ASU women’s sports, as well as the less popular sports on campus. They are committed to giving attention to more than just the big-ticket games.
“We really try to market them on campus,” said Julianne Wilde, an intern with 942 Crew and senior at ASU. “We should also support them because they’re just as athletic as the guys and it’s just as fun of a game to watch.”
While the 942 Crew is succeeding at increasing student attendance at women’s sporting events, not all students who show up end up staying. One common occurrence and concern for the crew is students showing up to collect free merchandise – and then leaving without watching a second of the game.
“That always happens,” Wilde said. “That’s always a challenge we’re trying to face and we’re trying to fix. That’s always a topic of conversation.”
One way they attempted to combat this at the event was by serving Betty’s promised birthday cupcakes far after the game had started, making them only available to students who stayed to watch. But also this didn’t seem to persuade everyone.
“We try to talk to people to try and get them to stay,” she said. “So I think it’s just us trying to create a community where everyone feels welcome, where they want to be at the game, and we’re not forcing anyone to be at the game.”
Others do choose to stay and watch. But for some, their attendance seems to hinge on what free items are available that day.
That is the case for Juliana Troyanos and Abigail Nosan, students at Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business. The two rarely attend women’s basketball games, but chose to come to this game because of the T-shirt.
Troyanos said the Betty White theme drew her in and that more topical events like this one could convince her to attend more women’s basketball games.
“I would definitely go to more if (the shirts) were designed better,” she said.
Despite these cases, Wilde believes the 942 Crew has still been successful in its mission to lure new people to events and expose them to women’s sports, increasing the likelihood that they will stay and keep coming back.
“We definitely have some aspect of moving the needle,” she said. “We definitely have a voice on campus.”
ASU women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne calls the student section organization the team’s “X factor.”
Turner Thorne, who was named head coach in 1996, said it’s been fun to watch the evolution of the organization and see more students get involved over the years.
“We brag that we have the best student section in the country,” Turner Thorne said.
“Students just add an element of energy and good obnoxiousness that other people aren’t necessarily going to bring. And we really appreciate them.”