(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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Ackerman Report (1): The best teams, not the richest, should host NCAA tournament
- Ackerman's report on NCAA women's basketball deserves more exploration