The Ackerman Report (13): Putting it all in perspective

October 28, 2013 - 8:30am
The athletes, the game and its entertainment value and administrative support for the sport will all play crucial roles in enabling women's basketball to thrive in the 21st century. (File photo by Lee Michaelson)

The athletes, the game and its entertainment value and administrative support for the sport will all play crucial roles in enabling women's basketball to thrive in the 21st century. (File photo by Lee Michaelson)

Editor's Note: This is the final article in a series based on Val Ackerman’s report to the NCAA on the state of the game.

First, thanks to any who read all of these articles – your patience with my ramblings and repetitions is much appreciated, but more important, your interest in women’s basketball is what keeps the sport alive.

The sport is not going away any time soon, though at the same time it’s clear there are some fundamental issues that need to be thoughtfully considered. The powers that be in women’s basketball have taken the first step by recognizing that there are some problems, and commissioning the Ackerman Report. And last week the NCAA women's basketball committee also approved taking some steps to solve them, though their compromises on the recommendations of the White Papers Summit are a bit of a mixed bag. Having top seeds host the first two rounds of the tournament, for example, is a virtual no-brainer that can only help improve attendance in the early rounds, while at the same time rewarding the best, rather than the richest, programs.

The committee's half-a-loaf decision on Women's Final Four scheduling, on the other hand -- i.e., returning the Final Four to a weekend schedule, while rejecting the proposal to shift the women's Final Four to the weekend following the men's -- might well have improved the experience for fans committed enough to travel to attend the event in person at the expense of creating the worst of all possible worlds for television viewership and media attention for the game by putting the women's Final Four in head-to-head competition with the men's.

But the picture is much bigger than that.

After working through this long series, it seems to me there are really three elements that, taken together, will define the future of women’s basketball: The athletes; the game and its entertainment value; and administrative support. (The reference to entertainment value might look like one of those “what doesn’t belong?” SAT questions, but bear with me ….)

First, any sport requires people to play it, and obviously the more talent they have, the better off the sport will be. Athletic talent, though, is limited in quantity. There are only so many highly coordinated, highly motivated women with a serious competitive streak, and even fewer who are tall – and that pool of athletes is being tapped by a wide variety of sports, from volleyball to soccer to tennis to golf.

Participation numbers indicate that fewer girls are playing basketball, opting instead for volleyball and soccer, among others, though it may be that the elite athletes, the ones that elevate a sport, are sticking with basketball. A possible reason would be that professional basketball is a much more viable option than professional soccer or professional volleyball, and the WNBA certainly helps in that regard.

But it is at least as likely, if not more likely, that the decline in participation mirrors a decline in the number of elite athletes choosing basketball. The reasons for this could be many, ranging from a preference for non-contact sports to issues surrounding race and gender to a perception that women's basketball uniforms are less attractive than those worn in volleyball, and it’s unclear how any women’s basketball organization could do much to change any of those aspects of the sport.

A marketing program that emphasized the positives of basketball, especially one aimed at fifth through eighth graders, couldn’t hurt, though again, it’s unlikely to have a major impact. Girls at that age are driven by peer pressure, not parental input or TV ads, and if there were a guaranteed way to make girls of that age group buy a certain product or follow a certain singer, it would have been discovered long ago.

Nonetheless, it’s crucial to maximize available talent, and right now, that’s not happening. Coaching at the youth level is, all in all, much worse than it could be. Of course, there are excellent coaches out there who understand the importance of fundamentals, who know how to teach fundamentals, and who understand that winning the sixth grade CYO tournament at the expense of player development is just a bad decision. Unfortunately, though, those coaches are in the minority, in part because parents are more wrapped up in winning games than even their daughters, and if the parents aren’t happy, the coach is soon looking for another team.

What Brian McCormick calls the win-by-Friday syndrome is endemic in girls’ basketball, as coaches press and trap and emphasize athleticism over skill so that they can win the next game. And there’s no obvious way out of this cage: The winning coach will attract the best players, who will win more games, and attract more good players. And at the high school club level, that coach will then be surrounded by college coaches offering scholarships, which just continues the cycle.

Certifying coaches would be helpful, and requiring them to take a course in how  to teach girls how to make layups would definitely be a step in the right direction. After all, how can talent develop if it doesn’t get proper instruction?

But even if more elite athletes play basketball, and they are better trained, they still must play by the rules – or to put it more precisely, to play by the rules as they are enforced.

Are those rules, however, the best rules? Are there changes that could be made that would make the game better?

The first stumbling block is the word “better” – what’s better for a fan who loves good defense might not be better for a fan who would like both teams to score 100 points. If you talk to coaches, for example, you’ll find some who preach defense, defense, defense; some who emphasize scoring; and some who press or focus on rebounding or the latest conditioning wrinkle. And that’s where entertainment value comes in.

For much of the early history of the game, there was a jump ball after every basket, and it wasn’t until very recently that a shot clock was introduced. Why? Because the game was “better” with those changes, though purists claimed both would destroy the game they liked so much. The point? That the game changes over time, and there’s no particular reason to believe that the 2013 version is the best, any more than the 1913 version was the best.

Since one of the obvious differences between men and women in athletics is speed, and that’s particularly obvious on television, it would seem that increasing the pace of play could only help. (It’s a given that men’s basketball is more popular than women’s, and if one of the goals is to increase popularity, then considering why the men’s game attracts more fans and viewers is important -- and many would argue that the speed of the game is one significant difference.) Putting in the 30-second clock certainly picked up the pace, and dropping that to 24 seconds helped the WNBA become more entertaining.

Probably more important, though, is the way the rules are interpreted. I believe strongly that to improve the pace of scoring, and thus the entertainment value, in the women's game, officials need to both protect the female shooter more than they do in the men’s game and reduce contact in trapping and pressure situations. This requires a shift in mindset, as officials, like everyone else, watch the NBA and college men’s basketball, and tend to want to do things the way they’re done in the best league in the world, and the most popular collegiate form of basketball.

But why is "popular" important? Because sports aren’t free. Athletic and university administrators have limited dollars to invest in sports, and they will invest in those that bring the best return on that investment. Women’s basketball has, in the past, been the best revenue producer among women’s sports, so it made sense for administrators to spend money on coaches, on facilities and on travel. (Much of that is mandated, to some extent, by Title IX, but there is lots of wiggle room.)

As long as administrators continue to do that, women’s basketball will survive. As long as television and the Internet demand content, women’s basketball will survive. (The sport's appeal to broadcast media is enhanced by the facts that it is a familiar game to viewers, and it fits in a fairly clear time window of about two hours).

But will it thrive? Without a steady influx of elite talent -- especially if that talent winds up playing volleyball or soccer -- women's basketball will become less important over time. Without a conscious nod to the impact of entertainment value, and how rules and rules’ enforcement affect that impact, it will generate less revenue. And if it generates less revenue, it will steadily lose administrative support.

So the fundamental challenge for the sport are clear: Women’s basketball needs better players who are better trained by better coaches, and a game that is fun to play and fun to watch, both in person and on television. Though issues such as the structure of the NCAA tournament are important, they are not fundamental -- and fundamentals at all levels will determine the future of collegiate women’s basketball.