- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- After the summit discussing her women's basketball study ended Monday, Val Ackerman was still submerged in thought.
"I'm still trying to digest it," Ackerman said following the daylong meeting at NCAA headquarters, which was attended by some of the top coaches from women's college hoops, plus administrators and NCAA personnel. "We had a great group -- this was a significant part of the women's basketball brain trust all in one place.
"It's a busy time of year, so the fact that we had such a great turnout speaks volumes about the gravity of the subject. I would call it a good start, but there's just so much to talk about."
Ackerman, the former WNBA president who now is commissioner of the Big East, was commissioned by the NCAA to do the report -- referred to as a white paper -- and it was released publicly in June. It addressed strategies for the game's continued growth, which range from trying to improve training at the youth level, to how the college game is officiated, to the format of the NCAA tournament.
Media were not allowed into the discussion room Monday, but could speak to participants during breaks in the summit, and at its conclusion.
"I think the biggest issue was, 'What are we going to do to move the game from the spot that it's on right now?' " said Connecticut's Geno Auriemma, who is also coach of the U.S. national team. "We had so much momentum, I think, from about 2000 to 2004-05, and we lost a little bit of it. Things kind of plateaued.
"We wanted to look at how we can make the NCAA tournament more compelling. How do we handle regional sites, Final Four sites, first- and second-round games. Do we move off the weekend when the men's Final Four is playing to another weekend? Do we go back to a Friday-Sunday format [at the Women's Final Four] instead of Sunday-Tuesday? I think everything was on the table."
The group that met Monday voted on several of these issues, and their recommendations will be passed on to the NCAA committees that govern the sport for possible implementation. Among the ideas that got a majority vote of support:
• Return to having top-16 seeds host the early rounds. It was changed to predetermined sites in 2003. (This was in an eight-team "pod" system for the early rounds from 2005-07; it was discontinued.)
• Move the Women's Final Four to the weekend after the men's event.
• Go back to a Friday-Sunday setup for the Women's Final Four, rather than Sunday-Tuesday. The latter has been utilized since 2003.
• Have two super-regionals instead of the current four regionals, and award them on a multi-year basis to build up community interest, support and infrastructure.
"This was monumental -- to bring all these people together and achieve some areas of consensus," said Anucha Browne, NCAA vice president for women's basketball. "What I wanted to achieve from this session was making sure we had the right people in the room -- the key stake-holders -- and that they had accountability for the decisions made today.
"After we discussed issues, we asked for a vote. And we haven't done that in the past. Sometimes, [the NCAA] would have meetings, and then people would leave the room and think, 'Did we actually decide on anything?' This was a meeting where we able to give definitive direction to our women's basketball committee [which administers the NCAA tournament] and to our women's basketball issues committee. It's a lot easier when we have some clarity in what the positions are of the main stakeholders on issues relative to the tournament."
The idea behind switching to predetermined sites a decade ago was that it would allow schools to market the event and sell tickets far in advance, plus would help with television planning and costs. But it hasn't necessarily boosted attendance -- especially when a school that is hosting is not in the NCAA tournament field.
Also, the predetermined-sites setup has created multiple scenarios over the years where a worse-seeded team is hosting a team with a better seed. In conversations with participants Monday, there seemed a strong agreement that having the top-16 seeds host was fair because it rewards teams for their regular-season success.
Although the super-regionals idea also was recommended on majority vote, there seemed less consensus on that than with top-16 hosting early rounds. Some coaches, such as Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, said they are still in favor of maintaining four regionals. But others are more willing to go to a setup of so-called "super-regionals" that likely would have eight teams each.
"I think it's worth a try, but the thing you have to do is get community involvement," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "Because there are probably going to be several teams that aren't from that area if you have a super-regional. You have to know the community will support the whole event."
McGraw and Tennessee's Holly Warlick both spoke in favor of moving the Women's Final Four to the weekend after the men's event, an idea that has been discussed and debated for many years. It would mean the Women's Final Four is held the same weekend as the Masters golf tournament. But that is a daytime event, whereas the basketball is in the evening.
"I think being the same weekend of the guys' Final Four, we get kind of lost," Warlick said.
However, others at the summit expressed concern that viewers will have essentially "checked out" of watching collegiate basketball a week after the men's Final Four. And, of course, any change in dates will have to be negotiated with ESPN, which broadcasts the NCAA tournament.
As for returning to a Friday-Sunday format, that seemed a popular idea. Louisville coach Jeff Walz, for instance, said he has heard from his team's fans that the Sunday-Tuesday setup is more difficult for a lot of the women's basketball fan base. That's because it often requires taking three days off at the start of the work week. Same goes for the school week, in regard to fans with children.
Because the NCAA women's tournament dates back only to 1982, there are many people still involved with women's basketball/college athletics who have institutional memory going back that far and more.
Among those at the summit Monday who were heavily involved in the sport at the inception of the NCAA tournament were Donna Lopiano, former Texas women's athletic director, Jody Conradt, retired Texas women's basketball coach, and Nora Lynn Finch, senior associate commissioner of the ACC.
Finch was the chairwoman of the NCAA tournament selection committee from 1981 (going into the first year of the event) to 1988.
"Understand this about the start of the women's championship in 1981-82: We were given the men's model," Finch said. "It was, 'Now fit your sport into this model.' We were given very little leeway then on the structure, or on things like embracing the media at a time when we wanted people to get to know us. And I think that was a detriment to our start. We had a relative ability to change some of it, but it took time.
"It's difficult with all the bureaucracy and the large membership of the NCAA to change things. The beauty of this summit and Val's paper is that she's put into writing things [what] we've been talking about, some of them for a long time, some of them more recently. Now the women's basketball committee will have feedback from a very experienced group that's saying, 'It's time to try some of these things.'"
The sport as a whole
The discussion Monday covered more ground than just the NCAA tournament. A concern mentioned by many of the participants was the increased physical nature of the women's basketball, and how that has impacted scoring and the overall pleasure fans get from watching games.
"As I said in the meeting, the one thing that could be impactful immediately is the officiating," Auriemma said. "To find a way to come to a consensus on how the game is going to be officiated, and that it be consistent all over the country. There are a lot of rules right now that are not necessarily being enforced.
"I think we have a culture now where we're hopped up on how physical we can be, how tough. But in the end, we have boxing matches in the lane, somebody trying to make up for their lack of skill by just beating people up. And that's so counterproductive to what we're trying to do."
Auriemma likened it to how the playoffs in the NHL produce better hockey than the regular season.
"The NHL playoffs are hard-fought and hard-hitting, but there aren't the fights," he said. "They're playing good hockey. In basketball, there has to be a freedom of movement on the court, and we've lost some of that."
VanDerveer said this was one of the aspects of Monday's summit that she felt most enthusiastic about: That there really could be changes made to return the game to more of a showcase for offensively skilled players.
"I feel that can happen now," VanDerveer said. "The message will be sent to officials and their coordinators that it isn't rugby or sumo wrestling, it's basketball. I'm ecstatic about that. I think it's good for everybody, because you'll see more basketball skill."
Speaking of skills, another major area of concern for college coaches is how the game is being taught -- or not taught, as the case may be -- at lower levels. The Women's Basketball Coaches Association has discussed this as well: The need to implement some kind of certification system for youth coaches, perhaps in conjunction with USA Basketball.
As it is now, youth coaches might have little fundamental training in how they teach the sport or deal with young people. Yet they can wield a great deal of power over the recruiting process as they fill the roles of advisers to players, some of whom might have limited parental guidance or experience with the path to earning an athletic scholarship.
"We talked a lot about coaching development at the youth level," Warlick said. "It's our responsibility to help teach young coaches that are getting into the game. We're trying to see if any kind of changes in coaching youth can help lead the sport in a better direction."
In Ackerman's report, another topic she addressed was the possibility of a scholarship reduction from 15 to 13 as a way to promote parity. But that suggestion did not achieve any consensus, mostly because of the amount of injuries the sport has to deal with.
Ultimately, as mentioned, all these potential changes must go through NCAA channels. But as Browne said, there is now a large amount of feedback to give to the women's basketball selection committee -- its current chair, Carolayne Henry, participated in Monday's summit -- and the women's basketball issues committee. Both committees have upcoming fall meetings next month.
Sites for the 2014 NCAA tournament will be announced the second week of October, while the 2015 sites will be announced in December. It's expected any changes in the current tournament setup wouldn't be implemented until 2015.
"There does seem to be an continued appetite for change," Ackerman said. "In the way the tournament is conducted, the way the game is played, and the way the sport is managed.
"There are some things that could be implemented sooner than others. But it's not going to be a short-term, overnight process. I think people are going into it with a long view of what's best for women's basketball."
Still, Browne was pleased that definitive suggestions were voted on.
"We expect to come out of those October meetings," Browne said, "with some finalized decisions on how we grow the women's basketball championship. Just mirroring the men's game has not been the answer for us."
19dBonnie D. Ford