By Greg Johnson
The NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee has asked for a comprehensive feasibility study of sliding the entire Division I Women’s Basketball Championship one week later.
A recap of the 2011 championship was highlighted by increased attendance, improved ratings and decreased travel costs as more teams were able to play championship games closer to home.
At first- and second-round sites in 2011, including five sites without a home team participating, attendance was up 4 percent from 2010 with 146,787 in total attendance. The 68,021 fans attending 2011 regional championship games in Dallas, Dayton, Philadelphia and Spokane marked the third-highest total in the history of the championship and the most since the 2003 season when 73,954 attended. In total, regional attendance was up 64 percent from 2010. In addition, regional final attendance showed an increase of 93 percent from the 2010 championship, while regional semifinal attendance was up 44 percent.
“The decreased travel costs in 2011 were due in large part to committee decisions regarding tournament format,” Donohoe said. “Of the 64 teams that participated in the 2011 championship, 32 teams were located within the 350-mile driving distance of their competition site, which significantly lowered our transportation costs. This allowed fan bases to watch their teams play, which was important to the committee in improving the student-athlete experience.”
Donohoe cautioned having so many teams playing so close to home may not be the case every year as the committee is obligated to follow established team selection, seeding and bracketing principles in order to ensure the fairest championship possible and host sites and their proximity to participating institutions does vary year to year.
The increase in championship attendance was in keeping with a 2010-11 Division I regular season across Division I that featured an all-time attendance record with 7,574,644 fans. A total of 16 schools averaged 5,000 or more fans per game in 2010-11, with two schools – Tennessee and Louisville – averaging 10,000 or more fans. A total of 50 schools averaged more than 2,600 fans per game.
ESPN averaged a 1.44 cable rating for its 2011 championship coverage, up 14 percent from 2010’s 1.26 cable rating for 12 ESPN broadcasts. This year’s 1.44 is the third highest average on ESPN in the 16 years since the cable network began broadcasting the tournament in 1996. The 2011 national championship game between Texas A&M and Notre Dame averaged a 2.80 cable rating, a 5 percent increase from the 2010 national championship of a 2.67.
“The 2011 championship was a great success for our game on many levels,” said McNeil. “What we want to do now is build upon this momentum and make 2012 and beyond even better.”
The complex issue involves potential adjustment to the start of practice, regular-season competition, the recruiting calendar and conference tournament schedules. The committee wants to ensure the matter is studied, reviewed and discussed in a broad manner.
The committee, which met the last week of June, requested its future strategies subcommittee to focus on the topic.
Additionally, NCAA President Mark Emmert will assemble a panel of key stakeholders from the membership to review the study and forward a recommendation.
After reviewing data, survey and research information, the committee cited potential benefits to the championship including less head-to-head competition with other NCAA championships, better attendance, more corporate champion/partner activations, greater overall media exposure and expanding growth opportunities for the game.
“Importantly, the committee recognized that among several options that had been raised in conversation over the past years, it was useful to narrow its focus toward the option that most logically should be considered in depth,” said NCAA Vice President of Division I Women’s Basketball Sue Donohoe. “During the summer meeting, the committee had preliminary discussions with ESPN and they will obviously be further engaged in the dialogue. ESPN has agreed to provide what data they can to help the committee in its decision making but noted that any schedule change may bring about issues for them that must be considered.”
ESPN, which signed an 11-year deal with the NCAA in 2001, has been the exclusive broadcast home of the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship since 1996. The 2011 championship marked the ninth consecutive year all 63 games of the tournament have been broadcast on ESPN’s family of networks.
Committee members also informed representatives of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association of the feasibility study, Donohoe said.
No deadline has been set for the completion of the study, although Division I Women’s Basketball Committee chair Marilyn McNeil encouraged an expedited examination.
“As a committee, we want to do what is best for women’s basketball,” said McNeil, vice president and director of athletics at Monmouth. “If this is the best way of enhancing the championship, the sooner a decision is made, the sooner an implementation date can be established.”
In other action, committee members compressed the timeline for when it decides which institutions will serve as hosts for the 16 predetermined first- and second-round and four regional sites.
The announcement of the 2013 preliminary round sites will be determined in spring 2012. In past years, those decisions were made in the fall of the previous year.
“The committee believes it will be able to project more accurately the teams that are having success and achieving great crowds and community support for their programs,” Donohoe said. “We would look at sites with that in mind. It still gives a host plenty of time to market the games.”
The change is also in line with broader site-selection reviews that are being undertaken by a new unified championship structure that is designed to streamline operations for all 89 championships.