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Pilot Women Define the Field

Aug. 7, 2008

By Tony Schick
The Portland Tribune

No university has ever marketed women's soccer the way the University of Portland has. The Pilots ranked fifth in the nation last season and had unrivaled

fan support - the program is the only one in the top 25 that leads its school athletic programs in attendance.

"We've created a niche with women's soccer that makes us unique," Pilot marketing director Tricia Miller says. "We're taking what other schools consider an Olympic sport, and a female sport, and created a name for ourselves with amazing soccer players and amazing women."

Portland has led the nation in women's soccer attendance the last three years and is the first to eclipse 40,000 fans in one season.

Miller says the athletic department relishes the soccer program's cultlike following and the opportunity it provides to grow the name of the school.

"We're using a female sport to tell our message, and we've gotten a lot of praise from fans for that," Miller says.

Methods of spreading that message include a 100-foot wallscape off Interstate 5 featuring eight women's soccer players and the slogan "real futbol," which Miller says has garnered a positive response.

UP is exploring new ways to spread the message about the two-time national championship soccer program that began preseason training Aug. 6.

"This year, we brought on more media partners to get the message out there for a broader audience," Miller says. "I would say that TV exposure is our No. 1 priority."

Partnering with Comcast SportsNet, the Pilots televised every women's soccer playoff game last fall. Miller believes the network will open up new opportunities for exposure beyond just televising games, with things such as Portland State's "Camp Glanville," which features the Viking football team preparing for the 2008 season.

"I think a women's soccer reality show would generate a lot of interest and viewers," Miller says. "But I'm not sure how the coaches would feel about cameras following their players to class," she adds with a laugh.

To ensure more TV exposure, the UP marketing department began supplying video highlights to local news stations that were unable to cover the games.

Whole program needs to grow

The Pilots also are revamping their athletics Web site.

"We're trying to bring in more elements to improve what we call the stick factor, getting people to stay longer, click on more links," Miller says. "We're going to continue to explore new opportunities to grow through the Web, from social networking sites to YouTube to our own Web site."

The concern, however, is that no matter how successfully the team is marketed, other Pilot sports must compete in order for the entire program to grow.

"There's a feeling like there's kind of a glass ceiling," Miller says. "We can keep setting attendance records, but how far can that carry us? That's where men's basketball is big."

Men's basketball has become a big priority in terms of both competition and marketing. The hope is that success in one sport can translate into another, through spreading the school name and cross-promoting.

The basketball team finished 9-21 last season, seventh in the West Coast Conference. Despite the record, the school says attendance has increased 76 percent since the 2002-03 season.

"Basketball has been growing over the last five years," Miller says. "There's always an interest in college basketball, but we must prove we're providing a quality product."

The WCC sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament last season.

"We're trying to tell the WCC story to a wider audience," Miller says. "It's really competitive, that's one of our selling points. I would say marketing men's basketball is our top priority."

Last year, Comcast televised nine men's basketball games. The program is trying to expand that television coverage, though, both on and off the court, because "with all these new opportunities, it isn't just about televising games anymore," Miller says.

Athletes still are scholars

While the program's goal is to move up in the conference and eventually reach the NCAA tourney, the marketing department believes basketball must be careful in its recruiting not to sacrifice the school's academic reputation in the rush to be competitive.

Currently, 35 percent of Portland's student-athletes are on the dean's list. To the athletic department, that is more than just a figure, it can be a marketing advantage.

"Our goal is to produce student-athletes you can be proud of, that fans feel good about rooting for," Miller says. "We will continue to focus on the total student-athlete, because that's one of our strongest selling points, and we're getting more and more fans seeing that."

By combining academic success with various charitable events and fundraisers, Miller says the Pilots have maintained a family-friendly reputation in all sports.

"Is it going to bring the most revenue? No, maybe not," Miller says. "But it is important to

who we are as an athletic department."