Women's Basketball Reaching New Heights

June 18, 2001

By Gary T. Brown
The NCAA News

It would be hard to find many people who would dispute that women's college basketball is in its best shape ever.

It also would be hard to find too many folks who would dispute that it could be better. The Division I tournament, for instance, particularly the preliminary rounds, can be better developed. The game likely would benefit from more parity rather than relying on a handful of premier programs for the sport's exposure.

No one would dispute that. Where there might be a dispute, however, is in how to do it.

One idea being bandied about right now is a financial golden nugget -- a revenue-distribution system based on success in the Division I Women's Basketball Championship. In an age in which money talks, some administrators and coaches are thinking that any financial incentive might prod those institutions that have been slow to devote resources to their programs into action. By encouraging advancement to the tournament, the hope is twofold -- it would encourage women's basketball growth evenly throughout Division I, a byproduct of which would be increased parity on the court and heightened interest at the gate.

It's a concept borrowed from the NCAA's most successful revenue sport -- Division I men's basketball -- though similarities between the two probably end at the concept stage. Because of the financial differences in each sport, any distribution in the women's game would likely be a nugget instead of a chunk. Still, those who are crafting the idea think that any financial incentive would allow institutions to at least help defray the day-to-day expenses of developing competitive programs.

How it would work depends on whether there's enough support to try it at all. Right now, the idea has advanced only as far as a project team from the women's subcommittee of the recently created Division I Basketball Issues Committee. That group talked about the concept at its second meeting this spring and will review various models of what a possible distribution system would look like this fall.

What it probably wouldn't look like is what the men's game currently has. The women's tournament doesn't produce revenue, in fact, it has run a deficit every year. And as for television, though a new contract currently is being renegotiated, the best of payouts still would be a fraction of the men's take from CBS.

On the other hand, no one is floating the idea that the women's distribution would come from the men's pie. It would have to be from new funds. Whether that's from developing the women's tournament into a revenue producer, landing a significant television deal or perhaps devoting a portion of future new allocations to the Division I budget (for example, championships money) toward the initiative remains to be seen.

"Something new like this does beg the question of where will that revenue come from -- or worse, where will you take it from?" said Bernadette McGlade, associate commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference and a member of the Basketball Issues Committee's women's subcommittee.

McGlade hit on perhaps the primary resistance to the idea for those who are skeptical. No one is certain yet exactly where the money will come from. But the project team has asked the NCAA staff to develop some models to review at its fall meeting. If the group likes what it sees, recommendations would go to the full women's subcommittee before proceeding through the Division I governance structure for approval.

A natural next step

McGlade said the idea is a direct result of the current success of the game. As women's basketball grows, it's natural for more and more programs to devote the resources necessary to keep up. McGlade said revenue distribution is the next step.

"Those distributions make a difference for the majority of conferences and institutions," she said. "We've seen great improvement in other areas that have received additional funds, such as academic enhancement or grants to improve officiating. Collectively, the amount might appear to be significant, but individually, the dollars are small nuggets to help institutions do the little things to improve and to help defray the every-day expenses."

McGlade said whatever revenue would be distributed wouldn't be earmarked for specific initiatives within women's basketball, but would simply be an additional distribution to conferences.

Atlantic 10 Conference Commissioner and subcommittee member Linda Bruno thinks most leagues would welcome the relief.

"It might help individual programs with promotions, or buying an extra television game, or maybe a conference would be able to improve its tournament," she said.

Some coaches like the idea, too. Texas Tech University's Marsha Sharp, also a member of the subcommittee, said that for some programs, it's the only way to grow.

"You can sell out your arena, but because there isn't as much revenue attached from a conference television package, there's not a lot of other ways to increase your ability to produce revenue for your school," Sharp said. "Ticket sales is one area from a men's perspective, but most of those schools benefit a great deal from a conference TV package. That really hasn't been possible for the women."

The root of evil?

One caveat that comes with introducing a revenue distribution plan is introducing a temptation to achieve success at all costs. Women's basketball makes infrequent appearances in infractions cases. Would chasing a golden goose change that?

"There's no reason that women's basketball has to follow down the same road and make every mistake that older sports or older championships have made," McGlade said.

"Women's basketball has the terrific luxury of being very cognizant of where there have been problems in other sports, whether they are abuses in the game or abuses that come from the pressure to make the tournament," she said. "What I've seen in the last five years is that women's coaches, athletics directors and conference administrators are very aware of the pitfalls and are dutiful of avoiding those pitfalls. The subcommittee is the perfect example of that. It can be on the front end, making some decisions to protect the game."

Mid-Continent Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, another subcommittee member, is one of those cognizant of the pitfalls.

"There are some perceptions on the men's side that are not necessarily positive, and I don't think we need to repeat that," he said. "We've seen improvement in other sports without attaching a revenue-distribution component, such as soccer and baseball. I'm concerned about what happens when you start attaching that price tag."

There are other concerns about the price tag, as well. Steinbrecher remembers that the process of developing the system for the men was fairly contentious. "I'm not anxious to have that occur again," he said.

Sharp also said that from a coach's perspective, no amount of revenue is worth compromising the game's exposure. Right now, women's basketball is gaining ground on-screen and at the turnstiles. If it's a matter of a revenue nugget or more games on the air, most coaches would prefer the latter.

"All of us are more interested in the exposure we receive for the game than the amount of money we might be able to return," she said. "The most important thing for women's basketball is to build that fan base. There are pockets that have proven that women's basketball can be a player in revenue production, and now we need to take that to a national level.

"It all has to go together. We need to make sure that we don't give up coverage just to receive a small distribution."

While a revenue-distribution component would not require legislation, many entities nonetheless would have their fingerprints on it before it would become a reality.

"Change is difficult for individuals, but much more so for large organizations," McGlade said, noting that the diverse makeup of even the subcommittee makes for a challenge to reach consensus on complex issues. But she also said that's what will ensure that whatever decision is reached will be the right one.

As far as deciding on whether a revenue-distribution plan is the panacea, it's a matter of definitively answering the unanswered questions. Where will the money come from? Should there be a distribution if the championship continues to operate in the red? Will the plan adequately address the parity concerns? Will it compromise the game's exposure? Can it be done without introducing temptations for abuse?

It's a charge the McGlade said the group studying the issue fully understands.

"Those questions have to be answered not only in the best interests of women's basketball," she said, "but of the NCAA as a whole."

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