The defining moment in the life of Patty Coyle came at Immaculata basketball game at Villanova that she and her twin sister attended when they were kids. Awe-struck by the caliber of play, Coyle muttered to herself, “One day I want to do this.”
She meant for a living. But the timing of her declaration, the 1970s, did not augur well. Women’s sports in this country offered little past high school and nothing past college. And even major men’s sports were not at the level they enjoy today.
But Coyle did get to play. By the time she graduated from Rutgers in 1982 she was third on the school’s all-time list for the most games played, with 129, a mark she shares with backcourt mate Patty Delehanty. She remains seventh in assists (394), fifth in free-throw percentage (.796), and 18th in scoring (1,209 points). She also was part of Rutgers’ only national women’s title, the AIAW National Championship.
In the men’s game, those numbers would have likely earned Coyle at least a tryout for the NBA. But in the early 1980s the only way to make a living in women’s basketball was to be a coach. And she was, first at the University of Miami, then at Rutgers and at St. Joseph’s University. In 1992 she finally got a head coaching job at Loyola, where she turned a Loyola squad that had a 31-135 record over the prior six seasons into a two-time winner of Metro Atlantic Athletic Collegiate Championships (1994 and 1995), earning NCAA tournament berths both years, and advanced to the MAAC title game four times.
Then the winds shifted. The rise in interest in — and the money connected to — women’s basketball led to the creation of the WNBA. Coyle joined the New York Liberty as an assistant coach, taking over the reins midway through the 2004 season, and she has been there ever since.
The outsider and insider perspective has taught Coyle a lot about the value of sports, the money and the emotion. And, Coyle says, neither can truly exist without another. Coyle will explore the economic and social effects of sports programs when she presents “Hooping It Up: How Sports Drives Dollars,” at the Mercer Chamber luncheon on Thursday, March 19, at 11:30 a.m. at the Trenton Country Club. Cost: $60. Call 609-689-9960 or visit www.mercerchamber.org.
Visiting dollars. Later this month Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton will play host to the NCAA women’s regional Final Four. Consider how much money that can drive. Were it the men’s Final Four, the games could, according to the U.S. Athletic Association, generate as much as $40 million. Beyond TV deals and salaries, that leaves a significant amount of money behind for the community that hosts the games.
While women’s basketball does not generate the same kind of money, the residual benefits to surrounding communities can still carry a major punch. “The fact that you bring in X amount of teams,” Coyle says, “means money into hotels, money into restaurants.” There is shopping to be done and merchandise to sell. “All that is big money. It’s amazing how sports drives the dollar.”
Peripheral dollars. Walk into any sporting goods store these days and there is no end of logo-emblazoned merchandise. Sports teams have their marks on everything from attire to pen lights.
The amazing thing is, it isn’t just the pro teams anymore. For popular sports like college basketball, store shelves have become veritable billboards — even if the school is nowhere nearby. Coyle says she is delighted and still somewhat disbelieving when she walks into a sporting goods store and sees the WNBA ball — a little smaller and a lot more colorful than the NBA ball — on the shelves.
Even area high schools have a piece of the action. Enter any Modell’s store, for example, and you will find a rather large display space dedicated to sports bags, water bottles, sweatshirts, and sportswear proudly stamped with the colors and logos of surrounding public high schools.
Big market, little market. The proliferation of sports merchandise proves to Coyle that more than the big markets exist. Her own, New York, is the biggest market there is, but Coyle says this creates one problem — competition.
Generating interest in local teams, Coyle says, “is much more difficult in major markets.” The WNBA season, for example, is summer to fall. When Coyle’s Liberty start play the spotlight in New York sports shines hot on the Yankees and Mets. By the time it’s WNBA playoff season it’s on the Giants and Jets, not to mention on the scads of college football teams that consume the interest of the New York/New Jersey market.
On the flip side, there are towns like Reading, Pennsylvania, where Coyle walked into her niece’s birthday party at a (minor league) Phillies game. “The place was packed,” Coyle says. “I’ve never seen so many people at a minor league game before.” As for a reason, Coyle answers with a question — “Who are you competing with?”
Big money, little money. Forget the money sports can bring into a community. A bigger problem in the major-market professional world is how much money it takes out. Last season’s mooning over the demise of Yankee Stadium has given way to outrage over ticket prices — as much as $850 a seat to a regular-season game. Season tickets for the Yankees’ and Mets’ new arenas are so expensive, in fact, the Coyle says, “I make a very good living, and I can’t afford season tickets.” Not for the good seats, anyway. “And I want the good seats.”
In the real world, Coyle says, many people simply do not have the bank account to fund a night at a major sports event, which after parking, tickets, tolls, food, and a souvenir, can easily into the hundreds. This is where markets like the WNBA (about which Coyle holds no illusions as to its stature compared to men’s sports) have an edge, she says. Good seats at a Liberty game cost about $50. “You get those same seats for a Knicks game, they’ll cost you $250,” she says.
Smaller market sports take less out of the fans and raise local pride, Coyle says. And while the profits might not be as high, the margin often is.
The social effect. Growing up in South Philly with three South Philly sports fan brothers — one of whom played baseball for Drexel and one of whom played football for Temple — Coyle knows the male perception about women in the game. Any game. It took one of those brothers six years to finally come see a Liberty game, despite that Coyle was a coach. But her brother eventually came and brought his son. When they left, Coyle says, they both were stunned. They have since shown up every year.
Seeing the games — which Coyle admits have gotten vastly better as the talent pool has started to crank out players good enough to make yesterday’s stars into today’s cuts — has made fans of both boys, Coyle says. Particularly her nephew. Imagine, then, what organizations like the WNBA have done for little girls. Aspirations turn into direction, and direction turns into making the team. Consequently, as interest builds in grade school, communities latch onto their teams and help them grow.
There is one other piece to all this, though — television. Though it is often blamed for fragmenting audiences and watering down the effect of a live game, Coyle embraces television. “You need TV,” she says. “There’s no doubt about that. TV drives the product. If you’re not on TV, people don’t know you exist.” And such obscurity, in turn, drives down the number of butts in the seats, the number of stores that carry your team’s merchandise, and the market for sports in your neighborhood.