The UConn Huskies have dominated women's basketball, winning three NCAA National Championships in the last five years and eight titles overall. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
The UConn Huskies have dominated women's basketball, winning three NCAA National Championships in the last five years and eight titles overall. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

The Ackerman Report (10): Nurture parity, expand interest

September 13, 2013 - 2:02pm

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

Since 1995, Connecticut has won eight NCAA championships. Tennessee has won five.

Four of the other five teams that have won titles in that time – Baylor, Notre Dame, Maryland and Texas A&M – are heavily involved in any conversation about the 2014 championship, and the fifth, Purdue, is still one of the best teams in the Big 10.

Or, to put it another way, any talk of parity in the women’s game is much more fantasy than reality.

Then again, is dominance by a few teams really a bad thing? Doesn’t the overwhelming presence of UConn give the casual fan something to hang on to? Isn’t it better for ESPN to be able to promote certain teams and players over the course of a season rather than trying to guess which ones will shine? And isn’t it more fun for fans to have specific villains to root against, such as Geno Auriemma and the Tennessee band playing “Rocky Top” ad nauseam?

From the national perspective, that case can be made, but looking at the game regionally, the hegemony of the great powers hurts rather than helps. Southern California, for example, has been without a legitimate title contender for decades, and that’s the most populous area in the country, and New York City, one of the great basketball areas in the nation, has had almost no impact on the national scene. And for those who wonder why the women’s game doesn’t get as much attention as they think it should, it should be remembered that Southern California and New York City are the focus of almost all the national media.

Of course, there’s another way to look at the lack of interest in women’s basketball in various areas around the country: That just means there’s a lot of room for growth. The Big 12, for example, draws lots of fans; the Pac-12, very few. And aside from outliers such as Gonzaga, mid-major women’s teams seldom get more than 500 paid customers a game.

One of the goals of Val Ackerman’s report was to look at the state of the game and where it might go in the future, and clearly one area of potential growth is to add more and more regions that support the game – but to do that, the dominance of the few needs to turn into legitimate hope for the many.

Ackerman suggests, and many concur, that the first thing that should happen is the lowering of the scholarship limit from 15 to 13 (the lower number is the standard in the men’s game already). Of course, the reason for the higher number is the Title IX mandate that athletic scholarships for men and women need to be roughly equal, and the 85 for football need to be offset somewhere.

But the practical impact of having 15 scholarships, even if most teams don’t use all of them, is not only the concentration of talent in a few schools, but also the concentration of talent in the major conferences.

The reason? Coaches are more concerned with winning than the good of the game overall, and the math is simple: If Tennessee gets a girl who might help LSU win, even if she never plays for the Volunteers, it’s a win for Tennessee. And if Washington State uses the allure of the Pac-12 to keep a girl from going to Boise State, even if she’ll never get off the bench for the Cougars, then that’s a win for Washington State.

If parents and players were more sophisticated about the realities of the college system, they might realize that playing in a particular conference doesn’t really mean very much, but there’s too much ego involved (the girl playing in the ACC won’t be shy about letting folks know she’s supposedly got it better than the girl in the Colonial Athletic Association, regardless of how their careers play out). But the lure of getting a Tennessee scholarship, or playing in the Big 12, will often lead to a family to overlook the fact that there’s more playing time, and potentially a better overall collegiate experience, at a smaller school.

But if the scholarship limit were cut to 13, then presumably a significant number of players who would have wound up in one of the Big Five conferences will now trickle down to the mid-majors – and so on down the line. (Ackerman, by the way, proposes that the two lost scholarships instead go to other women’s sports at the Division I level, so no female athletes will lose out.)

One sure way to encourage parity is to distribute talent more evenly, which the scholarship shift would do, but more important – and much more difficult – is to convince athletic directors to invest more money in women’s basketball. The successful programs not only pay their head coaches more (Kim Mulkey makes $1 million a year at Baylor) but also pay assistants very well and have plenty of money in the budget for recruiting and other administrative support.

Since it is possible to generate revenue on women’s basketball – as opposed to, say, field hockey – there is a certain financial logic in spending that money. The issue, however, is return on investment: Could that money be spent elsewhere in the athletic department and deliver a higher return?

Some athletic directors, notably in the Big 12, have gotten a “yes” answer; others have not. In a hopeful sign, both UCLA and USC have recently upgraded their programs, and that investment could pay off not only for the two schools, but for the sport as a whole if the Los Angeles area becomes one of those regional hot spots for women’s basketball.

And in the long run, the advantages of parity outweigh its disadvantages. More good teams in more and more cities can only help the sport, as they will attract more young athletes, draw more fans and encourage athletic directors to invest in the game. Still, though cutting scholarships to 13 is a step in the right direction, getting the women’s game significantly closer to the men’s in terms of the overall equality of competition is going to take work, and time.

Or, to put it another way, expect UConn to keep winning national titles in the next five years, and the other teams in the Final Four to be very familiar as well. Maybe a decade from now, things will be different, but to make that difference happen, the search for parity needs to begin now.