Mapping the journey to 96 teams: Turning roadblocks into a roadmap?

The news that the Division I men’s tournament was considering expanding to 96 teams provoked a storm of reaction from fans, coaches, administrators and media. One natural byproduct was the question, “Should the women’s tournament expand to 96 also?”

For many in the women’s basketball community, recalled WBCA CEO Beth Bass, the first response was immediate and visceral. “If you were to ask me, ‘Are we ready for expansion on the women’s side?” said Bass, “I’d immediately say, ‘No, I don’t think our product is there right now.’”

But now that people have had some time to sit with the question, they’re finding that simply asking it has provoked some thoughtful and unexpected discussions.

“There’s a lot to think about,” said Dr. Marilyn McNeil, vice president/director of athletics at Monmouth University and chair of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee during the 2010-11 academic year. “I believe the first question is equity. If the men expand to 96 [or 68, as they now have], you’re giving these opportunities to men, and yet you’re not giving them to women.”

“I think the message I’m sending to my President is that women’s basketball is not as important as men’s. And that’s the last thing I want to do.”

That specific concern is why Patriot League Executive Director Carolyn Schlie Femovich believes it’s essential the conversations continue. “We as an Association are committed to equitable participation opportunities in championships for men and women. Right now, women are at 51% and men at 49%.” Because the men have committed to expand – and especially since a future move to 96 teams hasn’t been ruled out – there likely will be a need to create additional opportunities for women. “The real crux of the issue is,” explained Femovich, “should those all go into women’s basketball, and is that good for the game of women’s basketball?”

“The logical response would be, well, 96 for men, 96 for women. But part of what we’re trying to do in a very responsible way as Membership – and that’s through the WBCA and the Women’s Basketball Championship Committee and the Issues Committee, and even in some very directed conversations among some Commissioners  – is to say, ‘What is really in the best interest of women’s basketball? Not just with expansion, but what is the business model as we look ahead for 10 years? What would we like to see happen and what are the kinds of things we might need to implement to continue to see the game grow and develop?”

Triple Crown Sports, who manages the WNIT, is listening to all these discussions quite intently, especially since this season marked the expansion of their post-season tournament. “The reason we went to 64,” explained WNIT Director Renee Carlson, “was that in the past couple of years, we’ve left out more and more good quality teams that we thought should be playing in the post-season. If the NCAA expands to 96, the first question, at least from our point of view, becomes do we stay at 64 or do we downsize to 32?”

The reality, though, is that the additional 32 the NCAA team would most likely be those who are the financial bread-and-butter of the WNIT. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room when it comes to sustaining women’s basketball financially,” admitted Carlson. “So if those teams are not available, we might have to contract more. So now, suddenly, the opportunities for women’s basketball have decreased.”

Reaching this year’s WNIT finals has given Miami coach Katie Meier an interesting perspective on the expansion discussions. “I understand both sides of the story,” said Meier. “If 96 is going to be out there, then yes, I’m going to want one of those slots. But, at the same time, how many one-and-dones does that make?” she wondered. “We won five games in March and that’s never been done in Miami before.” During the tournament, Meier saw her team raise their shooting, rebounding and scoring percentages across the board. “To me that was a big deal. We brought our A-game in the post-season, and it lasted for a month. That was something we’re really going to build off of.”

Hosting three home games also allowed the Hurricanes to connect with alumni and build fan support, something that has become a trademark of recent WNIT tournaments. “Every year,” noted Carlson, “we have teams who go in and have their program’s best attendance ever. This year Illinois State was poised to sell out for a championship. Even not making it, you see them say, administratively, ‘Okay, we understand what we need to do to move forward with this – to capture this.’”

“Of course, the ultimate goal is to be in the NCAA,” said Meier, “but then maybe you don’t win any games in March. Now (with the WNIT) there are four teams that are playing six games in March. That’s a good thing to experience. But, at the same time, for the player’s WNBA resumes, for the coaching resumes, for everything else, it’s more prestigious to have NCAA appearances.”

That may be true but, suggested an administrator, “Be careful what your coaches want.” The current system allows a coach leeway due to, say, youth, transfers or injuries. With expansion, if a coach-on-the-edge is somehow not one of the 96, “They are going to definitely lose their job, even if they did have a couple of ACLs.”

Any talk of future expansion is tied to the current decisions that must be made to address the often conflicting issues of hosting, attendance and expanding the fan base for the existing tournament. For example, noted Sue Donohoe, Vice President of Division I Women’s Basketball, “When you talk about the format of the first and second rounds, some coaches’ take will be, ‘I think it should be the top 16 seeds as sites for the first and second rounds.’ Then there are others that ask, ‘If we’re at the top 16 sites, how does that grow the game?’ because year in and out, you’re returning to the same sites and hosts. Then,” Donohoe added, “you have to balance the whole ‘what’s good for the growth of the game’ with financial implications.”

“The message I drive home,” said Femovich, “is don’t necessarily model everything we do in women’s basketball after the men. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to have great competitive opportunities for women, and that the coaches shouldn’t get paid well and all those things. What I’m saying is, think about what will help grow your game and your product.”

“We’ve had a number of different experiences in terms of tournament format,” Femovich continued, “which one is really working the best for the women? What has drawn the best crowds? What has given you the best game opportunities? What has created the most interesting games? What does it all mean for television?”

The television question is particularly thorny because, while the last contract with ESPN included commitment to televise all rounds of the women’s games, it’s led to game times that may not be conducive to crowds. So, asked Femovich, “What would you rather have: Playing on someone’s home court at 3 p.m. and having a great atmosphere or playing at 9:30 p.m. on a neutral court for both teams, but there’s nobody in the stands? And what does that say to the audience or to your television partner?”

“I would ask coaches to really try to think about the game in the big picture. If you step out of your institutional hat and just put on your hat as a women’s basketball coach, what would you wish for the game? What could really make the game better? We are continuing to grow and evolve, but it might require that people agree to make some compromises — compromise for the good of the whole.”

Over the last few weeks, Bass has listened as people have moved the discussion from, “Why expansion doesn’t work,” to “Why it might work.” For her, it’s clear what the next steps are: “Let’s get all the stakeholders together and say, ‘Maybe not now, but we need to be poised and ready. What’s our plan?” said Bass. “Let’s not be caught down the road going, ‘Wow, we should have thought about that!’ Let’s get ourselves in position. That’s what athletics is all about.”

McNeil recognizes that there are many reasons the time is not right for expanding the women’s tournament, but cautions against turning those reasons into excuses against pro-active action. “People say, ‘We’re just not ready,’” she reflected. “Well, first of all, I’m not sure when we’ll be ready. But, and I bring this up all the time, I don’t think Patsy Mink [author of the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act], said in 1972, ‘I don’t think we’re quite ready for it.’ She saw there was an inequitable situation and figured out how to at least begin to address it.”

“I don’t know who gets to throw down the gavel and say, ‘Okay, now we’re ready,’” continued McNeil, “but I think we need to be pushed to be ready.”

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