Every entrance had a line of anxious fans. The corridors were nearly unnavigable. Seats were filled up to the very last row. You would’ve thought it was the first round of March Madness inside Pauley Pavilion, home of the No. 3 UCLA men’s basketball team, on Sunday.
But all those fans were not gathered for a basketball game. In fact, they were not gathered for any sporting event that would make it onto Sportscenter later that evening.
It was then-No. 19 Cal women’s gymnastics against No. 4 UCLA, and 12,576 people had shown up to watch. Go figure.
It’s no question that UCLA’s gymnastics program is a legendary one. The school has played host to numerous former Olympic gymnasts, including current freshmen Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross. Bruins head coach Valorie Kondos Field was named Pac-12 Coach of the Century in 2016.
But if UCLA is the New York Yankees of women’s college gymnastics, Cal is the Chicago Cubs. Sure, the Bears have yet to win an NCAA championship, but they have gotten closer in recent years than ever before, having placed seventh in 2016. Cal can also boast an Olympian on their roster, with junior Toni-Ann Williams having been the first female gymnast in history to represent Jamaica in the 2016 Olympics. As a team, Cal is currently ranked 17th in the country and is vying for a spot at the NCAA championships. Oh, and throw in the fact that it’ll be competing against the No. 1 team in the nation, Oklahoma, this Sunday.
So where are its 12,000 fans?
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, there’s so many things to do in the Bay Area,’ ” said Cal women’s gymnastics head coach Justin Howell. “This is L.A. There’s a lot of stuff to do here too, and they’ve got 15,000 people here.”
I share Howell’s frustrations. In fact, it has always genuinely puzzled me that gymnastics is not a mainstream sport. It has all the makings of one. The four events each showcase a different skillset: Vault requires speed and power, bars require bravery and stamina, beam requires precision and calmness and floor requires strength and showmanship. Gymnasts are unquestionably the most well-rounded athletes of any sport.
And even people who would not consider themselves mainstream sports fans can watch purely for the entertainment value. These athletes are flying three feet off of a bar and then catching it again; landing flips on a piece of leather four inches wide; doing not one, but two somersaults in a row and somehow finding their feet back on the ground. If that’s not exciting, then what is?
It seems, though, that the problem does not lie in the fact that people aren’t entertained when they do watch it, it’s that they don’t watch it at all. Gymnastics simply does not have the exposure that other sports do. That could be attributed to the incompetence of the sport’s national governing body, U.S.A. Gymnastics, which seemingly does not market itself at all. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen one of its ads on television. It’s a catch-22: Gymnastics doesn’t have enough fans to break into the large-scale sports media market, and it’s not on television or in the news enough to create a large fanbase.
But if there’s anything that UCLA proved this weekend, it’s that the best place to break that cycle is at the collegiate level. At Cal, home meets are free for students and are only about two hours long. Even Rob Manfred would approve.
If only one out of every 10 fans who was getting rained on in Memorial Stadium for the Big Game this year showed up Sunday, Cal would likely still set an attendance record.
“If you’ve never been to a meet, come to our meet against Oklahoma,” Howell said. “See the Bears face off against the No. 1 team in the nation. The gymnastics is gonna be amazing no matter what team you’re looking at.”
So as a former gymnast and a fan myself, I urge you to find out what this sport has to offer. Go to the Oklahoma meet. Watch the highlights from last summer’s Olympics. Watch the highlights from any Olympics. Not only will you be impressed by the athletes’ performances, you’ll be impressed that what they do is even physically possible. Once you see it, there’s no doubt you might just become a gymnastics fan yourself.