- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The NCAA wants its women's basketball tournament to return to being more fan-friendly, with the hope that the fans will be friendly back and increase the event's overall attendance.
The bottom line now seems to be this: Get more people in the seats. Don't sacrifice near-guaranteed good (or at least decent) attendance for the sake of specific television windows, or to avoid conflicts with the vast attention given the men's tournament. Give the people who are already fans of women's hoops the best opportunity to see NCAA games in person.
That's the message the NCAA is sending with the just-announced recommendations for changes in the women's tournament starting in 2015. They are all still pending approval from the championship cabinet in February.
Provided that happens (which is expected), the tournament in 2015 will return to some things that the sport decided to leave behind in the past decade or so, thinking that women's hoops would grow more by doing something different. Now, what's being recommended has very little to do with "new" ideas. To the contrary, it's largely about reverting to the way things used to be.
The saying goes, you never know until you try. The women's tournament has experimented with alterations that were well-meaning, but too often had adverse side effects.
The new recommendations are these:
• The top 16 seeds hosting early rounds, rather than predetermined sites.
• The early rounds being held Friday-Monday, rather than Saturday-Tuesday.
• The Women's Final Four being held on Friday and Sunday again. It was switched to Sunday/Tuesday in 2003.
• This is for 2016, and would be something new for the women: Having all three NCAA divisions play their respective Final Fours the same weekend in the same city. The NCAA did this for men's basketball earlier this year in Atlanta.
Are these good decisions, if they are implemented? I think so.
As someone who has chronicled women's basketball since the early 1980s, I think the interests of the in-person spectator are paramount, because that goes hand-in-hand with the players' best interest. Players want crowds, and the atmosphere they bring, at NCAA games.
That said, ESPN has its own parameters in judging what is best for broadcasting the event, and will evaluate the proposed changes thusly.
But essentially, the NCAA seems to now reflect an understanding that women's basketball still has heavy ties to its grass-roots fan base, and it's better to make the tournament fit as well as possible into those fans' schedules/lives, both time-wise and budget-wise.
The move back to the top 16 seeds hosting the early-round games means I can finally stop griping about predetermined sites for those contests. The NCAA moved away from top 16 hosting starting in 2003, with the belief that having predetermined sites would help in several ways: One, that it would essentially "spread the wealth" by allowing programs to purchase home-court advantage (and ostensibly increase upset chances). Two, that it would help attendance by letting host schools market the NCAA games all throughout the regular season. And three, that it would aid in the process of broadcasting all the NCAA games.
But there was always one big, unavoidable thorn: Predetermined early sites left the tournament with an annual controversy because better-seeded teams too many times had to play on a worse seed's home court. It was hard to justify that, and it invariably compromised the integrity of the bracket at least to some degree.
Furthermore, having the whole season to sell the games to potential spectators wasn't really that fruitful in terms of boosting attendance. Especially in those situations when a school hosted, but didn't make the tournament.
Did it really help the sport "grow" if two teams from far away were playing in front of a paltry crowd on a neutral court? Clearly, no. In most of those situations, the fans of the teams would have much better supported the games if either were hosting.
Top 16 seeds hosting is a more legitimate, fair reward, too, because it's something teams have to earn through regular-season results. That means the regular season really, really counts. I prefer that over what has always seemed like a manufactured way to try to "buy" early-round upsets.
If it's tougher to beat a top seed on its home court in the early rounds … well, it should be. This isn't the men's tournament, which is a national obsession and really isn't about where the games are played, just that they are played.
(As an aside, I feel the opposite about the women's regionals, which the NCAA returned to predetermined home courts for this year. I think the women's tournament is at the point where -- by the time it's down to 16 teams -- the rest of the event should be on neutral sites and be able to draw well enough at those.)
As for the recommended date changes, those take into account trying to help traveling fans miss fewer work/school days. The Sunday/Tuesday format for the Women's Final Four was meant to give the women one showcase night -- Tuesday -- when the men's tournament was already over. Again, the thought was that it would get the women's title game more attention and media exposure.
But did it really substantively increase those things? Probably not enough to counterbalance the down side of it for the fans attending. Sunday/Tuesday seemed to take a significant spark out of the fan experience for the event: Monday and Tuesday felt like "dead" days waiting for the Tuesday night final. Plus, it meant missing two or three work/school days at the beginning of a week for those fans traveling.
The idea of moving the tournament a full week later, so the Women's Final Four is on the weekend after the men, has long been considered, too. But it was not recommended by the committee at this time.
If these changes go into effect, will it possibly change anything about how the event is televised? I don't know. Honestly, that's not my purview. What I do know is that it seems like for the immediate future, starting in 2015, the tournament is looking to the past for ways to make the fans' experience better -- and the arenas fuller.