Decision, and honesty behind it, are step in right direction

The NCAA recently announced that starting in 2009, women's basketball will move back to 16 pre-determined sites for the early rounds of the Division I tournament. That was the setup in 2003 and 2004.

However, for the past three seasons, the early rounds have been at eight sites. And that again will be the case this season before switching back.

I'm not going to rip this decision to return to the 2003-04 model. On the contrary, I think it's the correct move.

OK, wait a minute, you say. Didn't I blast the 16 pre-determined sites model in several past columns? Well, yes I have. To say the least.

So are you wondering if I've had a lobotomy? Or maybe I've been "eliminated" -- and now a member of the NCAA Division I women's hoops committee is secretly ghost-writing this column?

No, neither is the case. Rather, I think the committee has been realistic enough to recognize it can't come up with a "perfect" solution at this stage of the sport's development. So it's just trying to do the best it can.

I appreciate the dilemma and the attempt to address it as best as possible. But as much as anything, I appreciate the honesty from Sue Donahoe, the NCAA vice president for Division I women's basketball.

"When the committee made the decision to go to eight sites for 2005, they knew that it was a calculated risk to try to grow the championship," Donahoe said. "With the understanding that they would evaluate it on an annual basis, which they have.

"Coming out of this year's championship, there was concern about the attendance. When we got into our summer meeting, it was probably one of the most in-depth decisions about, 'What do we do? Where are we going?' "

Women's basketball is unique in that it obviously isn't "the big two" -- football and men's hoops -- in its ability to draw fan interest, but it's also on a different tier nationwide than other collegiate sports. So there are more "experiments" with women's basketball, more attempts to take the temperature of the sport in terms of its appeal to both its base and entertainment consumers in general.

Donahoe met with the Women's Basketball Coaches Association board and discussed the tournament's priorities.

"Attendance, television ratings, student-athlete experience and equity in the championship," she said. "How do you mix all of those priorities in place to make sure that we can accomplish all of them?

"We have to look at where we are with the game and understand that all those things are not going to be able to happen at the same time."

Hooray! Finally, the truth -- something nobody with the NCAA or the committee seemed willing to acknowledge back when the move was first made to pre-determined sites for 2003.

This is huge part of the reason I was so critical of pre-determination: because the NCAA and the committee back then was insisting on selling it as something it wasn't. (Nothing makes grumpy, verbose journalists grumpier than when people in charge won't admit the obvious.)

Pre-determination is flawed. It is a necessary concession to television. It isn't a "win-win" as the NCAA will say in its canned news releases.

There's no reason to deny this. There's no blame game here. It's not the fans' fault, nor ESPN's fault, nor the committee's fault, nor the sport's fault. It's just part of the evolution of the sport and the tournament. Women's athletics is a growth industry, but that growth is not meteoric. Patience, honesty, and a willingness to take risks but also re-evaluate are what the sport needs.

Does having pre-determined sites -- 16 or eight -- present inherent potential problems? Yes. Simple bracketology tells you there are bound to be instances where better-seeded teams are forced to play on worse-seeded teams' home courts. And teams on the same seed line can have completely contrasting paths in the tournament.

For example, there could be two No. 1 seeds who are early-round hosts, another who ends up playing on a neutral court and another who has to play on a worse-seed's home court. Further, it could even be the overall No. 1 that gets the "worst" path.

The move to eight sites helped alleviate or avoid those things a little because it meant only eight teams, instead of 16, could possibly have a home-court advantage. It guaranteed more neutral-site games.

But … it also drastically hurt attendance and atmosphere. I've been at early-round games the last three years where they might as well have been playing in a mausoleum, since that's how quiet and dead it felt.

Meanwhile, ESPN had made the commitment to televise every game of the tournament starting in 2003. And it was running into more games under the eight-sites setup where what it was broadcasting did not do much to convey any sense of excitement about the women's version of March Madness.

"It's really important when viewers land on sporting events, especially for an NCAA championship, you've got to have that crowd and that compelling look," said Carol Stiff, senior director of programming and acquisitions.

That's why, as Donahoe said, everyone involved took a step back and a hard look at things after the 2007 tournament.

The women's college game, all of us involved know, is still largely provincial in its appeal. Fans come out to see their team, mostly. A growing portion of fans goes further than that -- with a keener interest in a conference or region, too. Then there are the "gems," the group of fans everyone hopes will expand considerably in the next decade: those who follow women's hoops on a national level and would attend a game to which they had no local or regional ties.

But understanding where the sport still is, it makes sense to go back to 16 sites. That means allowing more opportunities for people to see "their" teams. It also gives back host opportunity to more schools. The eight-team model had taken some communities out of that mix -- even if they were good women's basketball towns -- because they did not have the hotel requirements.

Now, the obvious next question is this: Why not return to the system that was in place from 1995-2002, when the top 16 seeds got to play host? That way, there wouldn't be the same possible bracket problems that are inherent with pre-determined sites.

But we know the answer to that, too: television. ESPN made the commitment to televise every game, but logistically that would be pretty much impossible for the network to do if it had to wait until the week the tournament started to assign production trucks and crews to destinations.

Again, this was something that committee members didn't seem to want to acknowledge back in 2003, which didn't make any sense. Of course TV drives sports decisions. It does so with every sport, even the biggest and most popular.

Yes, ESPN broadcasted many games under the old system of the top 16 seeds playing host, but not all of them. If the NCAA and the WBCA wanted every game shown, pre-determination was the necessary concession.

Tina Thornton, a senior coordinating producer at ESPN, has overseen operations at the women's NCAA Tournament since 2002. She explained that anywhere from 20-30 people will comprise the crew -- which includes the on-air talent -- for each of the sites. And each has a production truck.

Stiff said, "What we could not do is go back to that format when we went to the top 16 sites. They have to be pre-determined. We made that point clear."

In terms of attendance, the numbers for the two years of 16 pre-determined sites weren't much different than what they had been for the top 16 seeds playing host. So, the decision ultimately came down to whether the committee, with input from the coaches' association, strongly felt that getting every game broadcast really was a necessity. They decided it was.

So … for the next couple of months, the NCAA will look over bids to play host for 2009 and 2010 to add to the eight that were previously selected for those seasons. Donahoe said the hope is to announce in December the additional eight sites for both seasons.

Is it the perfect solution? No, because there's no such thing available right now. But at least the decision was made with a real sense of caring for the game from all parties involved.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.