It isn’t yet “broken,” but according to new Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, she has learned through 100-plus interviews that “There is a desire for change” in women’s college basketball.
“Now is the time for people to really come to grip with that,” believes the WNBA’s founding president and USA Basketball’s first female president, who last month released her “white paper” that specifically focused on five areas: vision, post-season, the game itself, the business side, and how the sport currently is governed and managed.
“I spoke with a horde of people” including her former league, NBA, USA Basketball and marketing types, explains Anderson. “I [also] had my own thoughts and observations.”
The entire report is on the NCAA website, but several of Ackerman’s “specific recommendations” I wholeheartedly agree with include: changing the current Women’s Final Four format back to Friday-Sunday; holding it at the same site for multiple years; and adopting a more aggressive promotional strategy. She also strongly suggests that the sport must look at making some changes in the next six to 10 years, especially in finding successful ways to generate revenues as too many college programs are losing money.
“There are pressures out there now that didn’t exist in 1981,” the year the NCAA took control of women’s basketball, Ackerman points out.
Following are this longtime women’s basketball writer’s own suggestions for the sport — our women’s basketball “Black paper”:
1) Eliminate post-season conference tournaments; restore instead the importance of winning your league through regular season play rather than only playing for high seeds and opening game byes.
2) Find a permanent Final Four site like Omaha, the yearly site of the College World Series.
3) Find a better television partner that will treat women’s basketball as a prime-time player as opposed to its current stepsister status with ESPN, FSN and BTN.
4) Women’s hoops need a “female Dick Vitale,” someone charismatic enough to sing the sport’s praises as he unabashedly does for men’s hoops.
5) Conversely, the sport needs a Gus Johnson-type who expertly and regularly calls all top games, as men’s basketball has an “A” announcing team.
6) Hire more competent women’s basketball announcers and analysts.
7) Women hoops fans must start badgering mainstream media until they fully become serious about its coverage.
8) Put women’s basketball games on television more often, and not just on cable.
9) Televise the Final Four on over-the-air television as CBS does with the men’s.
10) Stop putting all NCAA tournament games solely on cable, pay-per-view or the Internet.
Right now, women’s college basketball is badly affected by its lack of parity, which predictably makes the Final Four a Casablanca special — only the usual suspects, i.e. the marquee programs such as Connecticut and Stanford seem to make it each spring. “There aren’t so many great players in women’s college basketball,” continues Ackerman in her white paper. “There are a few superstars and a lot of really great players; then, from there, [the talent] falls off. If we can spread them around to more programs, then you have a chance to elevating parity.”
In other words, it’s rare to see a women’s version of Florida Gulf Coast or similar-type schools that become Cinderella stories each year for making a surprising deep tournament run. In still another word, UConn gets to the Final Four nearly every year, while Minnesota has been there only once.
“We are not seeing enough of that on the women’s side,” adds Ackerman.
Furthermore, we don’t see a season-long Journey series tracking the Big Ten women’s teams as we’ve seen for each conference men’s team the last two seasons on BTN. Rarely do you see anything closely resembling weekly women’s double- or tripleheaders on ESPN like men’s hoops, which literally are on every night of the week from November through March. And we aren’t even talking about the on-demand channels.
You also need bifocals to find women’s basketball scores, standings and the like in mainstream newspapers. And don’t even go to sports radio.
Ackerman also noted that “a more sophisticated approach to how women’s basketball is marketed” also is needed. I sincerely hope the Gophers marketing and promotion people see this. How rarely, for example, do they go out and raise interest, especially in the local Black community?
“It doesn’t cost anything to be getting out there in the community and doing grassroots work,” believes the Big East commissioner.
She also points out that a natural tie-in exists between women’s college basketball and the WNBA, but it is not being properly tapped: There are no one-and-done’s as in men’s hoops. Therefore, the pros get mature, seasoned players unlike the annual prospects the NBA presents as ready-for-prime-time players.
Finally, as serious as Ackerman’s report is — as well as our equally serious addendum to it — nothing will change unless those who are deeply connected to the issue and in a position to make the necessary changes recognize the urgency as she and I do.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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