Media Coverage for Women's Sport
When Connecticut won its eighth national women’s basketball championship in April, the celebration felt oddly vacant. The brilliant play of the Huskies against Louisville was witnessed not by a throbbing crowd, but in a half-empty New Orleans Arena.
Val Ackerman, a former president of USA Basketball, recommended the N.C.A.A. consider having teams seeded 33 through 64 play one another in the early rounds, with the winners advancing to play one of the top 32 seeds.
A curious thing has happened since the N.C.A.A. began sponsoring women’s basketball in 1982. It remains the most popular women’s sport, but its appeal has grown stagnant. Attendance is dropping. Television ratings are flat or in decline. Shooting percentages and scoring have reached all-time lows.
Only one team, Tennessee, averaged more than 10,000 fans last season. Of the 343 women’s teams in Division I, 205 averaged fewer than 1,000 spectators and 90 averaged fewer than 500.
There are urgent calls for change and rejuvenation. So Val Ackerman, a former president of USA Basketball and the W.N.B.A., spent the last six months studying the women’s college game, trying to figure out how to awaken a somnolent sport.
Her recommendations were made public on Monday. Some were bold, like joining the women’s Final Four with the men’s, or moving it to Europe, China or Qatar. The wide-ranging suggestions covered elements as disparate as the N.C.A.A. tournament, the height of the rim and the appropriateness of tattoos.
Some important matters were not explored, like how to address lesbianism more openly. Brittney Griner recently told ESPN that her former coach at Baylor, Kim Mulkey, asked her not to reveal that she was gay while in college, fearful that it would harm recruiting and undermine Baylor’s basketball program.
Still, Ackerman has made a serious study of the need to broaden the appeal of women’s college basketball beyond older fans and families to more students and casual fans, to enhance officiating and improve governance, to increase scoring, and to boost revenue in the sport when the average operating deficit for teams from the top conferences is more than $2 million.
Among the coaches and administrators she interviewed, Ackerman said in a telephone interview, there was a “real desire for change” and a “need for a new sense of energy.”
There has long been debate about how closely or separately women’s basketball should follow men’s basketball. Ackerman, a consultant who teaches sports management at Columbia, gave the N.C.A.A. several paths to consider.
One is to simulate tennis and hold a Grand Slam of basketball, playing the men’s and women’s Final Fours simultaneously in the same city on a trial basis. Another is to take advantage of the international appeal of women’s basketball by holding the Final Four in a country like Russia or China.
“Why don’t we look at that?” Ackerman said. “Maybe women can be the bold frontierswomen.”
She also suggested that the women’s Final Four could be held in the same city for multiple years, as baseball’s College World Series is played annually in Omaha. Or that it could be played a week after the men’s Final Four, perhaps as a nightcap for the Masters golf tournament.
She has also proposed that the women’s Final Four be played on Friday and Sunday instead of Sunday and Tuesday; that the season be shortened to one semester; that conference tournaments be reduced or eliminated; and that two cities instead of four be used for the regional semifinals and finals. She even raised the intriguing possibility of 16 teams gathering in one city for a week to play the regionals and the Final Four.
Although women’s basketball is following the same developmental arc as men’s basketball, which began its N.C.A.A. tournament in 1939, complaints have grown about a lack of parity in the women’s game. Two teams — Tennessee and Connecticut — have accounted for half of the 32 N.C.A.A. tournament titles.
One way to create more competitive balance, Ackerman said, was to reduce scholarships from 15 to 13 per university (and use the two leftover scholarships for other women’s sports).
Some coaches and officials want to reduce the N.C.A.A. tournament field to 48 or 52 teams from 64. Ackerman disagrees. Instead, she proposes that teams seeded 33 through 64 first play each other, with the winners advancing to meet the higher seeds.
Last season, Division I women’s teams shot 38.9 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from 3-point range, both all-time lows. Scoring also hit an all-time low of 62.1 points a game.
To speed up the women’s game, reduce the physicality and raise scoring, Ackerman has proposed several measures: a wider lane, a 24-second shot clock instead of a 30-second clock, and four 10-minute quarters instead of two 20-minute halves.
She also called for a serious exploration of a proposal by UConn Coach Geno Auriemma to lower the rim to 9 or 9 ½ feet from 10 feet. Some purists reject the idea, saying it would suggest that women play a lesser game.
“I disagree with the knee-jerk no,” Ackerman said. “If it’s no, let’s make a reasoned and informed no.”
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