ZEPHYRHILLS ― The modest congregation of senior adults remains unabashed about its affiliation. On this mild January evening, the cause never has been clearer.
This party’s going green.
With some gold interspersed.
The kitchen in Bryan Toll’s mobile home is congested with 18 USF women’s basketball fans, all bedecked in some sort of Bulls attire. In moments, they’ll make their way to their respective vehicles for the half-hour drive ― caravan-style ― to the Yuengling Center, where USF is hosting Cincinnati.
“They put on a great show,” one of the congregants chirps.
“They’re always there to welcome us,” adds Carol Kelly, who hails from Michigan, where she worked for Dow Chemical. “And they’re always there to say good-bye.”
In a sense, this contingent from Betmar Acres, a sprawling senior-adult community in Zephyrhills, reflects a sizable portion of the college women’s hoops fan base. Its exact size is unclear; it seems many schools don’t track ticket-buyers by demographic. But just go to a women’s game, gaze at the audience.
Odds are, you’ll notice it.
Senior adults galore.
“It’s purer basketball,” said Peter Parkhurst, a retired project manager for Verizon who hails from Maine. “It’s not bumpin’ and slammin', it’s pure.”
With that, several of Parkurst’s fellow Betmar Bulls nod in agreement. Four hours to the northwest, the sentiment is shared.
"I think the girls understand the basics," said Chuck Metzger, a retired retail food-sales manager and FSU women's season-ticket holder since 2013.
“There’s an awful lot of passing, there’s a lot of communication between the players, the way they move around the court looking for open shots and everything. It’s a little different than a lot of, ‘Get it to the big guy and dunk.’”
USF doesn’t keep track of its season-ticket purchasers by age bracket. Nor does 11-time national champ Connecticut or 2017 national champ South Carolina. But FSU and Florida do.
Of the Seminoles’ 1,620 women’s hoops season-ticket holders this season, 1,199 are 50 or older. UF, which has averaged close to 400 season-ticket holders the last three seasons, indicated a sample set of its ticket database revealed 85 percent of the group consisted of individuals 55 and older.
“It’s pure basketball, it’s not that dunking and doing all that crazy stuff,” said Connecticut native Jerry Phelps, who resides in a different Zephyrhills mobile-home park and owns USF women’s season tickets with wife Linda.
“And in women’s basketball, before they shoot, they pass. The men play one-on-one.”
To be sure, the women’s game, replete with ball movement and mostly devoid of dunking, possesses an old-school charm. As of Feb. 19, 83 Division I women’s teams were averaging 15 or more assists per game, compared to 71 men’s teams. Five women’s programs ― and no men’s teams ― were averaging 20 or more.
“The games are really fun,” said Linda Hyson, a retired FSU research assistant who has held ’Noles season tickets with her husband for roughly four years. “The women put on a great show, and there’s much more emphasis on team play rather than like, individual skill or showmanship that you see in men’s basketball.”
But its appeal transcends offensive motion and below-the-rim artistry. Modest ticket prices, favorable tip-off times and teams’ general willingness to engage with fans also endear the sport to older generations.
Toll, who hails from Indiana but has resided in Florida since 2005, said he and wife Donna’s season tickets for Bulls women’s hoops cost $116.50 apiece.
Considering USF’s schedule features 15 home games (including a contest against UConn), that’s $7.77 per game, per person.
“That’s a heck of a deal,” he said.
Metzger, a Pennsylvania native who became a “rabid” University of Miami football fan after a job relocation to south Florida, said he and wife Sunny pay $50 each for their 'Noles season tickets.
FSU’s regular-season home finale Thursday night against Syracuse was set to be the team’s senior night. But because the ’Noles have no seniors on this year’s squad, the school chose to recognize the community’s seniors, allowing anyone 50 and older in for $2.
“Earlier this season they had dollar night, where all tickets were a dollar,” Metzger added.
FSU had seven Sunday home games this season, none of which tipped off later than 3 p.m. Florida had eight.
No Bulls home game this season has tipped off later than 7 p.m. This year’s home schedule included six weekend afternoon games (three Saturday, three Sunday), none of which began later than 3:30.
Those daytime tip-offs partially explain why retired teachers Clem and Karen Armstrong ― parents of two USF alumni ― held on to their Bulls women’s season tickets after giving up their men’s basketball and football tickets.
The commute from their Hudson home became too demanding for so many sporting events. With the men’s team struggling so miserably in recent years, the choice of which sport to sacrifice wasn’t terribly difficult.
“And we may be coming back to men’s too, because they’ve gotten a lot better,” Clem said. "But the women’s team...we came down and saw a couple of games, and they were so good we got hooked on it.
“They’ve got a really good program. I mean, the coach (Jose Fernandez) has been here a long time, he recruits well, they just seem to get better every year, albeit a lot of injuries this year. But it’s been a lot of fun to watch a team that goes to the NCAA Tournament year-in, year-out.”
Back to Betmar. The group headed out the door on this evening features a blend of seasonal and full-time residents, hailing from various spots above the Mason-Dixon Line including Michigan, Maine, Indiana and New York.
It started with two couples, the Tolls and fellow Indiana transplants Denny and Brenda Lee. Their group grew organically.
Over time, they shared their passion for Bulls women’s hoops with other park residents, who gave the team a try and were impressed with the value, level of play and fan experience. Not one of them graduated from USF.
But all hail from the old school.
“They’re fun to watch,” Toll said. “They’re good fundamentalists. It’s fun to watch that kind of basketball because it’s a truer form of basketball, even more so than the men.”
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
Women’s Final Four
Amalie Arena, Tampa
April 5: Semifinals, 7 and 9:30
April 7: Final, 6
More info/tickets: www.ncaa.com/womens-final-four