- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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The things former WNBA president Val Ackerman concluded in her extensive, intensive six-month study of the state of collegiate women's basketball are not a surprise to those close to the game.
Attendance is stagnant.
Fan bases are growing older.
The appeal of the game is getting lost in bruising, physical play.
Parity has increased incrementally at best.
The NCAA tournament needs structural change, which would include the timing and format.
The promotion and marketing of the game require new effort and energy.
The game's governing structure is scattered and in need of cohesion.
The difference? Instead of merely talking about it, Ackerman put it down on paper. A white paper, to be exact. Something to be looked at, analyzed, scribbled on with notes and thoughts and considered carefully. A 52-page road map to the future of the women's game.
Now that Ackerman's assessment is done, the proverbial ball is in the NCAA's court.
The changes enumerated are big and small, easy and difficult. Some are throwbacks to old ways, others go in completely new directions. They are all there, organized, typed and printed and ready.
The question was never whether the women's game needed a shakeup. It's been whether the NCAA would be willing to do it on a wholesale level. Now we will find out.
"It's been obvious that the game has reached a plateau, but the potential is tremendous," said Anucha Browne Sanders, chair of the NCAA Women's Basketball Committee. "We need great growth and change. And Val's perspective is spot-on. It's a critical time for the game."
Ackerman, the former president of not only the WNBA but USA Basketball, was hired in November by the NCAA to assess the women's game. In six months of interviews, meetings, conferences and analyses, Ackerman said she found an appetite for bold change and a shared feeling that the NCAA women's game had leveled off in terms of interest, attendance, popularity and marketability.
"We have so much to be proud of, but the sense I got from people is that there is more that can be done," Ackerman said Monday morning after her white paper was released. "There is a tremendous appetite to make changes, big and small, to reinvigorate the sport."
Ackerman found unanimity around many issues, including a need for women's basketball to definitively separate itself from men's. The women's game, she said, needs to carve out its own distinct place in the sports landscape and to more aggressively champion what makes it special.
"I think there is a growing sentiment that we don't have to be just like the men," Ackerman said. "Historically, that's been the reflex. But it is its own sport and there's an opportunity to begin to separate itself and create its own identity."
Browne Sanders said she believes that many of Ackerman's proposals are "doable."
So then let's do them. Well, some of them anyway.
Many of Ackerman's proposals are not new, but already-been-tried tournament formats that were abandoned in favor of something that might work better, but didn't.
Those throwback plans include returning to a Friday-Sunday format for the women's Final Four and having the top 16 seeds host the first and second rounds of the tournament, formats that both look much better in lieu of alternatives that have struggled to gain traction.
The women's tournament has proved that it cannot sustain a reliance on neutral sites and maintain strong attendance and atmosphere for its student-athletes. Host sites will promise more interest and better crowds. Those two things alone outweigh the concern of competitive disadvantage of a visiting team to a top-16 seed. Want to host? Earn it with victories and a high seed.
The need for a change to a Friday-Sunday format for the Women's Final Four might not show up in television ratings, which have been boosted by the Sunday-Tuesday format. But it would do wonders toward bringing some energy back to the venues. Pushing the championship game into the middle of the week has reduced ticket sales, curbed fan travel and left the title game feeling anticlimactic and a little dreary. This past spring in New Orleans, the city had cleared out by the time Connecticut and Louisville played in the title game on Tuesday. Coaches participating in the WBCA convention had gone home, fans had returned to work and all the life had been sucked out of the arena by the time the game tipped off late Tuesday evening.
Other ideas, such as bumping the women's tournament back and having it end a week after the men's tournament, or scaling back the number of sites in the regional rounds, are worth exploring and even experimenting with.
Some of Ackerman's other proposals will be a tough sell.
Reducing scholarships from 15 to 13: Coaches likely will not be on board. While it might increase parity in the game and encourage top players to attend a wider range of schools, the prevalence of injuries in the women's game will become a much bigger issue with fewer scholarship players. Coaches will have to make much tougher decisions about moving on from players who might have a medical redshirt year or fifth year of eligibility. And it will decrease opportunities for female student-athletes, something coaches and administrators aren't likely to support.
Lowering the rims: Ackerman put this one under the heading of an "Innovation Track" for exploring more radical structural changes. But this seems like a nonstarter, an idea that might be too radical. It might be practically feasible, but it feels like a huge concession to the "fairer sex" and it won't happen.
The NCAA women's basketball committee will be meeting next week in Nashville to examine Ackerman's report, which covers everything from opening up the offense on the floor to marketing more aggressively to students.
Ackerman said she hopes the paper she submitted will serve as a "road map for a common vision of the game."
"Here's our North Star," Ackerman said. "People have never had that before."
Now that they have it, what will they do with it? That is the biggest question of all.
14dBonnie D. Ford