(This is the first in a series of commentaries on Val Ackerman’s report on the state of women’s basketball in the NCAA.)
The wheels are already turning after the publication of Val Ackerman’s six-months-in-the-making study on the state of women’s basketball in the NCAA – and the first tentative steps have been taken to improve the NCAA Tournament. Of course, nothing major can happen without a lot more meetings and pacifying of various interest groups, but the Women’s Basketball Tournament committee has already decided that schools can host Regional tournaments.
This is an improvement, certainly, as attendance at Regional tournaments at neutral sites, usually in big arenas, has been, charitably, dismal. The atmosphere at most Regionals was more like a high school JV game than a huge event (except in rare cases), and equally important, it cost the NCAA tons of money.
So allowing a school like Connecticut, say, to bid on the 2014 Regionals makes some sense, as at least the UConn fans will presumably show up close to home. But the committee needs to take the next, inevitable step, as it does with the first two rounds, and let the top four surviving seeds host the Sweet 16.
Back in the day, the first two rounds were hosted by the top four seeds in each Regional. This meant that a) there was very likely going to be a good crowd in the first round; and b) since upsets were less likely because of the home court advantage, the second round would draw well too. Of course, this didn’t always happen, but the shift to predetermined sites in the early 2000s has proven to be a step in the wrong direction.
The idea was that if a school knew it was hosting the first and second rounds, it would have a full season to go out and get sponsors and sell tickets instead of just a few days. That never happened – in 1999, with the top seeds hosting, the average attendance at first- and second-round games was 6,246; in 2013, with sites assigned at least a year in advance, the average attendance was 4,850.
ESPN also liked the predetermined sites because the network could work out the logistics of coverage well in advance because it knew where its resources needed to be. This is far from trivial, because keeping ESPN happy is critical to the growth of the game – but the network also acknowledges that showing games in an empty gym doesn’t make for riveting TV.
So the numbers make it clear that having top seeds host the first and second rounds will generate more fans and income, and make for better TV – so why not do the same for the Regionals? Why not let the top four remaining seeds host the four Regionals? That guarantees good crowds and avoids the negatives of predetermined sites, which are several.
First, if schools bid for the Regionals, it means that the rich schools will always host. It won’t be about rewarding good teams, it will be about rewarding colleges that are willing to spend money.
Second, if UCLA, for example, gets a Regional, and winds up moving to the Sweet 16 as a six seed, it would wind up playing at least one other team with a higher seed on UCLA’s home court. Again, it’s important to reward good basketball, not big bank accounts, and it’s also important that the best teams advance.
Third and the worst possibility, is that UCLA doesn’t advance to the Sweet 16 – now the Regionals are being played on a neutral court again, and we all know how that’s going to work out.
Sure, we can be reasonably confident that UConn will be in the Sweet 16 in 2014, but can you name three other schools that can roll the dice, risking a bunch of money, and bet that their team will be in the Sweet 16? Now, if the top seeds hosted the first two rounds, there would be a better chance, but even so, injuries and a host of other factors can radically change a season, and thus wind up with a Regional at a site with no local team in action.
This brings us to another major issue facing the women’s game: the men. Since Title IX, there has been a push for equality between men’s and women’s sports, but there’s a difference between “equality” and “the same.” Yes, the men have Regionals at neutral sites and do pretty well – but the reality, proven now with more than a quarter-century of history, is that men’s basketball is much more attractive to paying customers than women’s basketball. The reasons (misogyny, quality of play, etc.) are unimportant to this discussion, really; what matters is making things better in the future.
So, as Ackerman says, the people who run NCAA women’s basketball shouldn’t do things just because the men do, and it’s especially true in the postseason tournament. Neutral sites for women don’t work nearly as well as host sites for men, so why have them? Just because the men do?
Of course, there are negatives to host sites. It gives the better teams an even bigger advantage, and will lower the number of upsets. This is big fun on the men’s side, but again, the women’s game is different. Sports fans get excited when the Duke men lose to a directional school, and then pay more attention to the upstart; on the women’s side, Duke is the much better draw for the casual fan, who is the person ESPN wants watching the women’s tournament.
And speaking of ESPN, that’s another major negative. Going to host sites is a logistical challenge in terms of getting equipment and personnel where they need to be, but in the long run, the overall health of the sport is more important than ESPN’s challenges. Surely something can be worked out, and since host sites will generate more revenue, there will be opportunities to make things easier for ESPN.
And host sites also put a strain on the schools, which now must sell tickets and administer games on short notice – but schools do that for the both the men’s and women’s NITs, for example, and seem to handle the pressure without undue stress.
Put it another way: What kind of arena is more fun to play in? One with thousands of fans who are cheering for their team, or one that’s one-quarter full of fans texting their friends back home? And what game is more exciting to watch, on TV or in person? One in which a reasonable crowd is full of fans who care about the outcome, or a small crowd that politely applauds a nice pass?
The Ackerman report makes it clear that changes need to be made to the tournament, and there’s more that can be done than just shifting the sites, but what Ackerman didn’t want to do was push the boundaries so much that it was easy to dismiss her suggestions. Journalists have no such limitations, and though it’s great that the NCAA will allow schools to host Regionals, that step doesn’t go nearly far enough – we should return to the days of the top 16 teams in the tournament hosting first- and second-round games, and extend that concept to the Regionals as well.
And sooner rather than later.
- Ackerman's report on NCAA women's basketball deserves more exploration
- The Ackerman Report (2): Does the Final Four need fixing?
- The Ackerman Report (3): Attendance, even with a winning team, is not mandatory