Women’s basketball committee continues review of issues: The Division I Women’s Basketball Committee continued discussions during its October 18-20 meeting in Indianapolis regarding championship bracket size, playing dates, game times and formats for selecting preliminary-round sites. Read more »
1982: The first tournament field consists of 32 teams, 13 of which were champions on automatic-qualifying conferences. CBS televises the championship game, as it will through 1993.
1985: The Division I Women’s Basketball Committee determines the top eight seeds on a national basis for the first time. ESPN televises its first women’s tournament games (two regional finals and both national semifinals).
1986: The bracket is expanded to 40 teams. ESPN televises all four regional semifinals and the national semis.
1987: The Women’s Final Four in Austin, Texas, is sold out for the first time.
1989: The bracket grows to 48 teams, with 19 AQs.
1990: For the first time, more than 20,000 fans (20,023) attend the championship game – an 88-81 Stanford victory over Auburn in Knoxville, Tennessee.
1991: The three Women’s Final Four games are televised on CBS for the first time in a Saturday/Sunday format.
1993: The Women’s Final Four in Atlanta is the first to sell out in advance.
1994: The bracket increases to its current 64 teams, with all 32 eligible conferences being awarded AQ. The committee seeds the top 16 teams nationally, with the remaining teams placed regionally. In December 1994, the NCAA announces a seven-year agreement with ESPN to become the tournament’s exclusive television home beginning with the 1996 tournament. As part of the agreement, the Women’s Final Four moves to a Friday/Sunday format.
1997: The 4.0 rating for the Tennessee-Old Dominion final is the highest for any game on ESPN (men’s or women’s) since 1990.
2003: A new broadcast rights agreement begins in which ESPN televises all 63 games of the tournament in the new Saturday-Monday, Sunday-Tuesday format.
2006: The Selection Show is held on Monday for the first time.
2010: The bracket remains at 64 teams for the 17th year. The 2010 championship also marks ESPN’s eighth year of televising all 63 games and the 15th year overall of exclusive coverage.
NCAA Division I women’s basketball turns 29 this year, and while there’s nothing particularly special about the anniversary, the number of issues converging on the game make 2010-11 a potentially notable year for the sport that has grown exponentially in the level of play, its popularity and exposure, and the competition from more schools pouring resources into the game. With all of that comes the pressure to win while maintaining the very integrity on which the sport is grounded. What makes women’s basketball great? How does it grow? What are the threats?
Part 2 of this three-part series examines whether women’s basketball is mature enough to expand its tournament bracket, which has been at 64 teams for 16 years. Read Part 1 here.
Part 3 of this three-part series examines how selection and tournament timing is a balancing act for DI women’s basketball. Read Part 3 here.
By Gary Brown
“We need to do the right thing for the right reasons.”
– Sue Donohoe, NCAA vice president of Division I women’s basketball
While that statement could apply to a number of issues in women’s basketball, the 11-year chief executive of the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship is talking about the possibility of expanding the 29-year-old tournament bracket.
NCAA vice president Sue Donohoe
And while there may be any number of issues in the game that are at least as important, perhaps none evokes more opinions about what is “right for the right reasons” than tinkering with the tournament.
The Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, which oversees the spectacle, will continue framing “what is right” when it convenes Monday through Wednesday in Indianapolis. Many people believe what is right is the current 64-team model that has been in place since 1994. But now that the men’s tournament field has grown to 68, some are waiting for the women to make a similar change.
“The committee – certainly understanding that the men’s decision fueled speculation on the women’s side – has remained focused on making sure its discussions center on the best interests of the women’s game, whether that is no expansion, or expansion to 68, 80 or 96 teams,” Donohoe said. “The committee has to ensure that its discussion is focused on what best serves the championship.”
The committee doesn’t have to do anything at all. The current broadcast agreement with ESPN runs through the 2013 Women’s Final Four, and the 2011 championship already is set as a 64-team field. Yet the growth of the men’s tournament and the resulting question of whether to provide commensurate opportunities for the women’s game is a concern many have expressed.
Monmouth University athletics director Marilyn McNeil
Women’s committee chair Marilyn McNeil, the athletics director at Monmouth University, said talk about expansion is familiar. She said the reaction when it was first raised, though – which, she added, may ultimately be the final reaction – was that the community wasn’t ready for expansion.
“People said that there wasn’t enough parity and not enough good teams, and that first- and second-round games were already too lopsided,” McNeil said. “But in considering some of the other aspects of expansion, there obviously would be more opportunities for teams to make the field. Now, what does that mean for women’s basketball and for the local communities of teams that get in? It could raise awareness of those teams and increase the resources for those schools because of the national exposure.”
As the men did, the women’s committee is reviewing a number of models, from a modest increase to 68 to more dramatic growth to 80 and 96. And while the models under review may be similar, the reason for studying them is anything but. Part of the reason for growing the men’s field coincided with the new broadcast-rights agreement announced last spring and taking advantage of the revenue opportunities that came with it.
Increasing the women’s tournament comes with financial costs, not gains. Even now, the current rights agreement and ticket sales don’t outweigh the per diem, travel, lodging and operating expenses for a field that is paired nationally instead of regionally, so any bracket expansion would only add to those costs.
Which brings the discussion back to what is right for the right reasons.
Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne
If it is indeed about the student-athlete experience, then incoming Women’s Basketball Coaches Association President Charli Turner Thorne says you can’t create the same experience with 80 or 96 as you can with 64.
She said proponents of expansion like the idea of protecting more coaches, since jobs often are evaluated by whether the team makes the tournament. Other proponents say it is an opportunity knocking for more female student-athletes.
“I don’t know that we have a consensus among the WBCA membership,” said Turner Thorne, the coach at Arizona State.
“I’m not in favor of expanding the bracket right now,” said Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma, the current president of the WBCA. “I think the tournament is where it needs to be. I’m sure there are three or four teams that you could say belong in the championship field or you could say there are 10. You just don’t know. But I think the game is situated perfectly the way it is.”
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt
Tennessee’s Pat Summitt agreed. “For the time being, we’re right where we need to be,” she said. “Will there come a time when we might want to expand? Yes, if we have the number of quality teams that would allow for that. Perhaps at the end of this year we can gauge how many teams out there can actually contend for a national championship. But right now, I don’t see the need for the bracket to change.”
Hartford’s Jennifer Rizzotti said she likes the idea of growth but that the discussion to go there should be a careful one.
“Many of us think this is about equity, and if there are going to be more opportunities for men’s teams to play in the postseason and make money for their conferences, then we should think about the same thing,” said the former Connecticut star who played in four tournaments herself. “I don’t know if we’re ready for a 96-team bracket, but perhaps a four-team expansion if that means there are four more women’s programs that have a chance to experience the tournament.
“I’ve been in the NCAA tournament – it’s the prize. You don’t want to expand the field to the point where it’s not a special accomplishment any more to have made it, but maybe just by those four teams that seem to be on the bubble to have a chance to get in and prove their worth.”
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer
Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer agreed with the assessment that the tournament field is a special club. She said there’s no clear-cut distinction between teams that deserve to be in that field and teams that do not – and that the blurred line would exist no matter the size of the bracket.
But while she prefers the current 64-team model, VanDerveer acknowledged that expansion could help relieve more of the pressure on coaches to make the field.
“I don’t feel strongly one way or the other, but it might be something that would help our game by providing more access to a special event,” she said. “It also might motivate people to work harder to get there, which in turn would increase the level of play, which is another goal for the game.”
VanDerveer’s boss, Stanford Athletics Director Bob Bowlsby, said regardless of what the women’s committee decides, members need to block out the men’s expansion as a factor.
“Expanding just because the men did doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said the former chair of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. “The two tournaments are not the same.
“It’s true that the men’s and women’s tournaments tend to pace each other (the men’s field went to 64 in 1985), but the depth of quality on the women’s side is just not what it is on the men’s side. It’s getting better – there are more good players around and the game is more competitive than in the past – but it’s not there yet.”
The decision on bracket expansion isn’t mutually exclusive from other aspects of the tournament, either. A significant increase likely would affect how the tournament would be televised and thus impact the student-athlete experience. Currently, ESPN airs all 63 games, but that might not be the case in an 80- or 96-team model.
Expansion also might affect the timing of the tournament, the process for determining first- and second-round sites, and the various broadcast windows available.
The process for approving expansion also isn’t as direct as it was for the men. The men’s expansion came in conjunction with the contract announcement with Turner and CBS and was approved directly by the Division I Board of Directors, in large part because it was a symmetrical adjustment from the field of 65, which began in 2001. If the women’s committee ultimately does recommend expansion, that proposal would have to progress through the Division I governance structure – from the Championships/Sport Management Cabinet to the Legislative Council to the Board.
As for the models themselves, some people think 68 doesn’t add much opportunity, while others believe 96 would be too unwieldy. The 80-team model could offer a clean bye structure (top 16 seeds) and perhaps make the first rounds more competitive, but the details for any of the models are still in the embryonic stage.
Donohoe said, “You have to look at the current state of the game and what you hope the game is going to evolve to within the next five to 10 years and make a decision that will serve as the catalyst for that growth.”
That’s code for “doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
And that “right thing” just may be the status quo.
UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell
“I like the intensity and the tradition of the 64,” said UCLA head coach Nikki Caldwell. “You know what you have to do as a student-athlete and a coach to make that field. Some people say an expanded bracket presents more opportunities, but in my mind your opportunity is to make the 64. As a competitor and how I’ve been groomed from Day One, you make the 64. That’s how it has been embedded in us.”
In the end, it all boils down to whether expansion is good for the game, McNeil said.
“And it depends on who you talk to as to what’s good for the game – is it opportunity or competition?” she said. “It will take some brave thinking and some well-crafted arguments either way, whether we decide to expand or not.”
Coming in Part 3: Few folks are neutral on neutral-site games.