December 18, 2001

NCAA To Study Women's Hoops Tourney Changes

Dec. 17, 2001

By Heather Yost
NCAA News

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- The Division I Women's Basketball Committee will be switching roles with its constituents February 5-7.

They will be the anxious team, awaiting word if the Championships/Competition Cabinet will reward their years of effort.

At stake is the committee's recommendation for funds to conduct first- and second-round games of the tournament at predetermined sites. That concept was approved by the cabinet in 2000, but the proposal did not rank high enough on the priority list to receive funding last year.

In February, the cabinet will determine funding priorities for 2003-04, and the look of the Division I Women's Basketball Championship hangs in the balance.

Under the current format, first- and second-round tournament games are played on the home courts of the top 16 seeds, while regional sites and the Women's Final Four are held at pre-determined, neutral sites.

The proposed change, which the committee has recommended for 2003, would separate the site-selection and seed-selection processes, and predetermined sites would be named at least one year out, much like the Division I men's tournament.

The difference between the men's tournament format, though, and the women's proposed pre-determined-site format has caused debate among Division I women's basketball coaches. The predetermined sites the women's committee has in mind for now are home courts for likely tournament participants. While those sites would indeed be predetermined, they aren't necessarily neutral sites, as is the case in the men's tournament. The women's committee has discussed the idea of neutral sites, but it believes that's too big a jump for now.

"When I joined this committee three years ago, this was one of the biggest issues," said Maryalyce Jeremiah, senior associate director of athletics at California State University, Fullerton, and chair of the Division I Women's Basketball Committee. "It all started out that we wanted to have neutral sites. We didn't want to have the home court be the distinct advantage it is now in the tournament."

The coaches pressured the committee for neutral sites, pointing to the men's tournament as an ideal example.

Jim Davis, head coach at Clemson University, said predetermined sites can be only an interim step in the process. "I really think it slows down the growth of the tournament," he said. "I think we are ready for neutral sites. If you name a site a year or two in advance, it gives time to promote the tournament, and the crowds will follow."

Indeed, at the 1999 Women's Basketball Coaches Association meeting in Philadelphia, the coaches expressed a belief that neutral sites should be the next step.

"I think (the current recommendation) is a slap in the face to coaches," Davis said. "Women's basketball coaches know the sport, and we wanted neutral sites. Our voices were not heard. We were in overwhelming majority when we voted on this issue, and the committee simply decided to go ahead with their ideas rather than work with the majority."

But some coaches said they believed that the status quo would be preferred to predetermined sites.

"I don't think it is necessary to go to predetermined sites," said Debbie Ryan, head women's basketball coach at the University of Virginia. "I think the committee's main concern (about going to neutral sites) is financial. I think we should maintain home sites until we are ready for neutral sites and then make the change."

Others think the predetermined-site proposal is better than the status quo. Coaches at mid-major programs see the possibility of playing a top-16 team anywhere but their home court as alluring, which could happen with predetermined sites.

"We played at Iowa State a couple years ago in front of 10,000 fans, which was a tremendous advantage for the home team," said Kent State University head coach Bob Lindsay. "It is why you don't see many upsets. For a team like us, moving those games makes a difference."

After years of debate among committee members, however, the group decided an intermediate step to predetermined first- and second-round hosts had to occur before neutral sites could become a safe reality.

"The regionals are not selling out yet, and we realized that neutral first and second rounds may not be the best option," Jeremiah said. "We wanted to grow the game in different pockets of the country. Hosting a tournament in an area is a way to do that, creating exposure. All of these things were factors."

Home and away

Both the coaches and the committee realize that ultimately, neutral sites would eliminate the home-court advantage and would require hosts to make a financial guarantee without any possibility of a host team being sent to the site.

But Jeremiah said that predetermined sites give a different look to the incentive for an institution to host.

"When we sat down to discuss this at length, we looked at other models that were out there," she said. "We looked seriously at what baseball was doing. They have predetermined sites that are announced two weeks before the start of the tournament. We altered this concept, and the idea was to consider regions and institutions that have teams that might be good enough to make the tournament and have the fan base to support them."

Jeremiah said that does not necessarily close the door on a mid-major team that is unlikely to earn a top 16 seed but may make the tournament. Such a team could still be selected as a predetermined site, which would allow the championship to move to previously unexposed areas of the country.

"A school will have to be willing to guarantee the minimum," Jeremiah said. "There is a financial obligation involved with hosting an NCAA event, and it isn't necessarily a money-maker like people think. If you sell out your region, you will get a percentage of the ticket sales. You have to be willing to eat the loss, if there is one, and balance that with what it could mean to your program to have the chance to play at home in the tournament."

A well-planned bid, under the proposed system, doesn't guarantee a bid to the championship, though.

"Site selection and the selection into the championship are two different, totally disconnected processes," Jeremiah said. "It is almost like we go into the summer meeting, select the sites and put them in an envelope and don't look at it. Then we make our selections (for the tournament) in March and then open the envelope again after the teams have been selected to figure out where we are sending them to play."

The possibility of a team playing at home gives hosts an opportunity to sell tickets to the event before selections. Hometown fans will be encouraged to buy tickets early because they may not be available later, protecting a host in the event that the home team doesn't make the field at all.

"I think a lot of coaches think that getting a site means getting into the championship," Jeremiah said. "It has nothing to do with it. About half of those top 16 teams will probably still host, but it spreads out the hosts throughout the seeds."

Besides the marketing and tailored placement of tournament games to expose the game nationally, the issue most central to the coaches is still the home-court advantage.

"I think a lot of coaches have been confused that the top 16 teams play at home because they earned it, which is wrong," Jeremiah said. "They earned the seed and because of the model we were using they got the site, too. The top 16 weren't earning the site -- it was just the model. With predetermined sites, they will still be earning the seed, but they may not play at home."

According to Davis, though, it isn't that the top 16 have the advantage. With predetermined sites, at least one team probably will still be playing in front of its fans.

"You can look at Coppin State, Chattanooga and Gonzaga on the men's side and see the difference an upset can make to these programs," Davis said. "You are very rarely going to see that happen in the women's tournament because of the home-court advantage.

"I would rather have home court than a higher seed," Davis said.

But Kent State's Lindsay understands that the committee may be trying to walk before it runs. "This is a monetary situation, too," she said. "When you have home teams like Iowa State able to generate fans and revenue, you put the tournament in a good position. Ideally, the best situation is to have no one play at home, but I understand that revenue needs to be a consideration."

Must-see TV

Jeremiah said television contract talks with ESPN helped solidify the need for predetermined sites.

"I had some doubts before about predetermined sites," Jeremiah said. "I thought it was probably the best way for us to go, but I wasn't 100 percent sold. Now that a new television contract has been finalized with ESPN, I am convinced that predetermined sites are essential to maximizing the exposure of the tournament."

Starting in 2003, the first- and second-round games will be played in a Saturday-Monday, Sunday-Tuesday format. In previous years, games were played Friday-Sunday and Saturday-Monday -- in direct conflict with other women's games and men's tournament contests.

The new contract will allow for all 63 games to be broadcast regionally on ESPN and ESPN2, and all games will be available on pay-per-view. Predetermined sites will help the exposure by guaranteeing Pacific and Mountain time zones, reducing conflicts between games.

"TV is exposure, and exposure is what grows the game," Jeremiah said. "The focus of predetermined sites centers on creating greater exposure for women's basketball."

And while that exposure may not be as broad as some would like, it is a step in the right direction -- that is, if the proposal gains acceptance.

That means for now, the focus will be squarely on the Championships/ Competition Cabinet meeting in February.