Decreased attendance at the Women's Final Four has raised questions as to what days the tournament should be hosted on. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
Decreased attendance at the Women's Final Four has raised questions as to what days the tournament should be hosted on. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

The Ackerman Report (2): Does the Final Four need fixing?

August 15, 2013 - 10:16am

(This is the second in a series of commentaries on Val Ackerman’s report on the state of NCAA women’s basketball.)

First, it’s important to separate the issues surrounding the Final Four: Some concern the live event, and others the televised event.

For people like Val Ackerman, coaches, NCAA staff and those who attend every year, what happens at the Final Four is important. The championship games have become a focus for the women’s basketball community, a business convention with three basketball games. It’s also a major party and vacation destination for avid fans of the game.

For the vast majority of women’s basketball fans, though, the Final Four is a TV event, and the focus is entirely on the games themselves, not the dining options, after parties or the chance to network for that Division I assistant coaching gig.

Ackerman’s report, not surprisingly, deals primarily with the live experience, and the disappointing turnout and enthusiasm level at this year’s Final Four in New Orleans seems to have been the trigger for that part of her report. In other words, she begins with the assumption that the Final Four is broken and needs to be fixed, which may or not be the case.

But if the Final Four does need tweaking, Ackerman has several proposals:

  1. Moving it back to Friday and Sunday (on the same weekend as the men’s tournament) instead of Sunday and Tuesday. The primary motivation here seems to be that the weekend dates are much more convenient for those who attend in person.
  2. Changing the dates so that the Friday-Sunday configuration doesn’t clash with the men’s tournament. This would mean either starting the season earlier or later.
  3. Rethinking the location. Ackerman brings up the idea of playing it in the same place as the men, or perhaps setting up a long-term home that people could go to each year. Also in the mix is having the Division I, Division II and Division III championships at the same spot at the same time.

In terms of the live event, all of these make sense – and even going head-to-head with the men wouldn’t matter, because the overlap between the two audiences is minimal. The most intriguing idea is putting all three women’s championships in the same city at the same time, which would draw even more people in the industry and make it even more of a women’s basketball convention and festival atmosphere.

But is the live event the most important aspect of the Final Four? To those in the industry, its importance is exaggerated because they tend to go to almost every one. But at the same time, to those in the industry, it’s also critical that the highlight games of the college season get the coverage and attention they deserve – and none of these plans will do much of anything to improve the situation in that regard.

First, the Sunday/Tuesday schedule now in place is great for TV. The women’s games get promoted by ESPN when fans watch SportsCenter to see highlights and analysis of the men’s game, and there is no real competition. If the games were moved back to Friday/Sunday, there would be no overlap in terms of times, but given a choice, will basketball fans watch the men or the women? And unless they’re willing to commit 10 hours on Friday to watch four games (two men and two women) and six hours on Sunday, the likelihood of them spending much time on the couch watching the women’s game is very low.

That same problem would be magnified if the Final Four is a week earlier, because then there are even more men’s games on TV. If the women’s championship is the week after, then the competition with the men disappears, so of all the Friday/Sunday options that would seem the best. (The conflict with the Master’s golf tournament is less of an issue, as the audiences don’t overlap as much.)

Another big issue, though, is media coverage, and again, going head-to-head with the men’s Finals or Sweet 16 would simply relegate the women to the inside pages of the sports sections and a much briefer highlight package on TV. In this case, the competition with the Master’s is a problem, as the media focus will definitely be on one of the most important and photogenic events on the sports calendar.

Put all this together, and for the fan who doesn’t travel to the Final Four and in terms of media coverage, the present alignment is by far the best. The men’s title game can’t help but reflect some of the spotlight onto the women’s games, and the media doesn’t have much else to promote once the men are done.

Unfortunately, the people who will wind up making this decision are the people who always go to the Final Four, and they will very likely try to boost attendance by both shifting the time of the event and putting it in one spot for several years. The latter idea isn’t a bad one, but the game should definitely not be in a huge arena. Play it in a place with 15,000 seats and if it turns out that it’s hard to get tickets, that’s great – it makes the Final Four even more special. In terms of marketing, it’s better to have people disappointed they couldn’t get in than selling tickets (or not selling enough tickets) to people who don’t really care that much.

The in venue fan experience and the television audience experience both need to be addressed to help the game grow. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

My take? Keep the Sunday/Tuesday format right after the men’s tournament, but have all three championships – Division I, Division II and Division III – in the same city at the same time. Play each tournament in appropriate venues, with perhaps all three title games in the aforementioned 15,000-seat arena, and give one metropolitan area a three-year contract to see how a permanent site might work out. Logistically it would be a challenge, but, it would save the NCAA revenue by not having to produce three separate championships and it would create a bigger and stronger women's basketball environment for both fans and advertisers.

In the long run, though, the success of the Final Four, and the success of the entire sport, doesn’t depend on these details, but rather on the quality of the game and the entertainment value it delivers. Will tweaks to the system help? Of course, and everything should be on the table – but elite players, close games and an electric atmosphere are the critical elements in elevating the Final Four and appreciation of women’s basketball.



Lee Michaelson's picture
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You're dead right about the insanity of either making the men's and women's championships an ultramarathon, or worse yet, of placing them in head-to-head competition with one another. You also raise a good question when you ask whether the current Final Four system is actually broken and in need of a fix. Though attendance has dipped from its highs of 28-29,000 per session in the early 2000s, for the most part, there hasn't been a sea of empty seats in recent years by the time the tournament reaches the Final Four. For example, the stated attendance for each of the Final Four sessions this year was 17,545 and change. The seating capacity of the New Orleans Arena is variously stated as 18,000-18,500 when configured for basketball but that does not appear to factor in the superabundance of media and honorees at a Final Four. I can tell you from personal experience that the arena was so full this year that much of what is usually reserved for media seating was converted to seating for paying fans.This was great for the fans, and good for the overall atmosphere, though the place was so full that they had put most of the media -- other than ESPN and a few "favored nations" -- so high in the rafters that you really needed binoculars to track the action on the court.

This year's attendance was down roughly 10% compared to 2012 in Denver -- but it's more likely that this was due to the elimination of two of the four top seeds before the Final Four and the elimination of the third top seed in the national semifinal -- resulting in the most lopsided game in NCAA WBB championship history -- than to the location or the dates. (That couldn't have been good for TV ratings either.) Attendance would likely have been substantially higher had Baylor, which was less than a day's drive away, had still been in the mix, particularly with Griner as a draw.

Moreover, generally speaking, there is a drop in attendance between the semifinal sessions and the finals, as fans of eliminated teams call it quits and head for home, and there seemed to be a bit more of that this year, after Notre Dame was knocked out. This situation is only exaccerbated by the current Sunday/Tuesday schedule as many working people cannot stay over into the following week. A Friday/Sunday schedule might go a long way to mitigating that phenomenon. Even so, however, there would have been no need  to go looking for a smaller venue.

I fail to see how choosing a single multi-year site would help fan attendance -- part of the draw for both the fans and the WBCA coaches who hold their annual convention concomittantly is the tourism allure of the different destinations at which the event is held. It would have to be a very attractive (and convenient, transportation-wise) destination indeed to induce people to make an annual pilgrimage to the same city year after year. And long-term siting would have no effect whatsoever on TV audiences.

One of the biggest factors affecting attendance would seem to be the perceived desirability of the location -- San Antonio seems always to do well, as does Atlanta; Denver (2012) was attractive but expensive and difficult to fly into; Indy, though a perfectly pleasant city, is far from a tourist mecca and very expensive to get to -- and the attendance in 2011, the lowest since 1997, reflected just that.

But even more so, the perceived competitiveness of the event dictates attendance -- and TV ratings. Interest and attendance seemed to have peaked with the emergence of the first UConn dynasty, then dropped off as the Huskies' march to the national championship became too predictable (and that's despite the fact that UConn fans travel VERY well). There was actually roughly a 10% year-to-year increase in attendance in 2012, as Baylor emerged as a viable contender. To say this is not to take anything away from the accomplishments of Geno Auriemma and Connecticut's athletes over more than a decade. It is simply to observe that in sport, the "hero's journey" is less engaging if there's no dragon to be slain. It seems to me that the focus ought to be on developing the quality of the competition to the point where, while there may be leaders, there's no presumptive champion year in and year out. If fans perceive the games as exciting and the results as less predictable, attendance (and TV ratings) are likely to take care of themselves.

For that matter, just two years ago, the NCAA was touting increases of 93% in attendance at women's tournament regional finals and 44% at the Sweet 16. There was even a modest improvement in the concededly paltry first and second-round attendance. The reason: "We had great match-ups," according to Sue Donohoe, then the VP of NCAA DI women's basketball. Donohoe also cited the use of predetermined sites as a factor, stating it allowed more teams to play closer to home -- but allowing upper seeds to host the early rounds would also allow at least a quarter of the teams to play closer to home.

Bottom line, take care of the quality and competitiveness of the game, and make the venues accessible to fans of the teams who are playing, and attendance goes up.

Lee Michaelson's picture
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P.S. -- I love the polls. Too bad there wasn't one on the suggestion of a permanent or long-term site.

linksterman's picture
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I am confused. The writer seems to worry that Fri-Sun will bump against the men?

"If the games were moved back to Friday/Sunday, there would be no overlap in terms of times, but given a choice, will basketball fans watch the men or the women? And unless they’re willing to commit 10 hours on Friday to watch four games (two men and two women) and six hours on Sunday, the likelihood of them spending much time on the couch watching the women’s game is very low."



Don't the men play Sat-Mon? I would think a Fri-Sun  FF for women would draw some viewers from the men's side while once the men finish on Monday those viewers see the season as over and won't bother to watch on Tues.


Of course no one has mentioned whether TV is willing to give up Fri evening to wcbb. ESPN has turned Fri into a NBA showcase night. I suspect they have less of a problem fitting the women in on Tues than Friday.


ClayK's picture
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The Friday-Sunday games are an issue if the women's games are moved a week earlier, because the men are still playing.

The Friday-Sunday games on the same weekend as the men's would simply disappear in the media runup to the men's games, especially on Sunday.