Archive for Women’s Basketball

More Audio: Talking the UConn Streak – 88 on The Takeaway

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2010 by Helen

Listen:

The Huskies, the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team, tied UCLA’s men’s basketball record of 88 consecutive wins on Sunday when they defeated Ohio State at Madison Square Garden. Helen Wheelock is a huge Huskies fan; she was at Sunday’s game and can’t wait for them to go for number 89, and sole possession of the record, tonight against Florida State.

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

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by Helen

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.”

AUDIO: Dave Zirin of Edge of Sports, 4/9/10

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2010 by Helen

Dave Zirin from Edge of Sports hunts me down in Texas – post the San Antonio Final Four – and we do a quick hit on the 2010  tourney and the next season of college ball. Audio link here.

NCAA TOURNAMENT HOSTING: Hidden Hurdles and Helpful Hints (WBCA April, 2009)

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2009 by Helen

As college basketball moves into its season of review and reflection, doubtless there will be many discussions about the 2009  Division I tournament and the logistics of seeding, the needs of hosting, the restrictions of television and the current economic reality.

But as the women’s game seeks to strike the balance between a competitively balanced tournament and a well-attended one, we would be remiss to not examine the successes and challenges faced by the host institutions themselves. What lessons were learned and how might they be applied to games and tournaments across the Divisions?

THE DEVIL IS IN THE (NCAA MANUAL) DETAILS

While it’s all well and good to have hosting guidelines and requirements laid out in a manual, it’s important to take steps to ensure it’ll be as a road map, not a doorstop. “We actually had a meeting in Indianapolis in August, where everyone was given the manual and they literally walked you through it over about a day and a half of meetings,” recalled Todd Stewart, Associate Athletic Director-Communications at Western Kentucky. From that point on there were periodic conference calls, emails and site visits by NCAA personnel. “There is a lot of communication and they do a tremendous job of making it very clear what you need to do, so nobody could really say, ‘Oh I really didn’t know we needed to do that,’ or, ‘I hadn’t heard that before.’”

It’s not just about “rules and specs,” but intent and purpose, commented Brandon Yopp, Assistant Media Relations Director at North Carolina State. “The big difference in an NCAA championship, from a hosting standpoint, is you have to understand how strongly the NCAA places the focus on the student athlete’s arrival at the arena. From the second they step on the property everything has to be to the letter of the way the NCAA would like it. And they want it equitable.”

“When you first host and you read through the manual you might say, ‘Well we don’t really need four locker room attendants, we can probably get away with two.’ Or, ‘We don’t need a greeter to escort them from the loading dock to the locker room, it’s 100 feet, what do they need that for?’ When you have it in place and you see how smoothly it works, you really find the value in that when you see the reaction of the student athletes.”

THIS IS NOT A SOLO ACT

The reality of hosting a tournament game is that the rest of the athletic programs don’t shut down nor does one’s staff suddenly increase exponentially. “It’s very challenging because again, to the NCAA’s credit, they run it as though you have the top two ranked men’s teams in the country at your place,” said Stewart. “It’s not based on who you have, or who you might have. We could have had North Carolina’s men playing the Connecticut men, and we could have done that here. That’s how sophisticated of a set up they require.”

For that reason, explained Stewart, “you really have to have a huge buy in of volunteers. You don’t have the money to pay 100 people to work for you. It’s just people who either take pride in the University or your community or both. They want to be involved, help out, and have it be a good impression for everybody.”

In Raleigh, said Yopp, “we’ve been fortunate in that we have a really active Convention and Visitors Bureau and they have been absolutely unbelievable. Their management has helped us form a Local Organizing Committee (LOC) that is actually separate of the Tournament Management Committee.” Members of the LOC include people with the Raleigh-Durham airport, Downtown Raleigh Alliance, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, N.C. State, as well as representatives from the Centennial Authority (which runs the RBC Center.) “It makes sense for all of these collective groups to commit resources to try make the championships a success. So, when sales don’t dictate that our budget will allow us to buy street banners downtown, the LOC finds a way to buy the banners. When we may not necessarily have the money to do a face painter or the exterior things — those outreach events in between sessions — the LOC will cover the band and the face painting and the things that we do to try and make it a more appealing event. That has just been a huge, huge factor in our success.”

He points to the Saturday games as an example. The BaylorLouisville game was first, followed by Maryland-Vanderbilt. “We had a pretty good crowd considering it was all out of market teams. Baylor had a good contingent there and then for the second game a lot of those fans stayed. It ended up being one of the best games that I’ve seen all year (Maryland’s furious comeback). The crowd obviously benefited from doing the things outside that kept them on site — the things that the LOC helped us to do helped to make that second crowd even better than the first.”

WHO’S COVERING THIS?

In the past, the number of credentialed media attending an event has often been used as a measure of its success. These days, slashed travel budgets that limit even those willing to travel cross-country have made that an invalid measurement. It’s also posed challenged for host-site media directors looking to encourage local coverage, especially if the host team hasn’t made the tournament. Yopp noted that one of the directors of the large local paper — the News and Observer — served on the local organizing committee. “We had no one local [playing, yet] we had two News and Observer writers cover the entire championship. While it is local news, there were a lot of other things going on in town, too. I have to believe that their involvement on the front end had something to do with that.”

“It’s always interesting to see, especially in these economic times, what we have to do to be able to take care of the folks that can’t make it,” said Judy Willson, Assistant Director of Media Relations at the University of New Mexico. Hosting Kansas State, Drexel (PA), Vanderbilt and Western Carolina meant that most team’s media outlets hired local writers to string for them. The time difference, combined with being scheduled as the late game by ESPN, meant a high-pressure push to meet deadlines. “We just roll and we do the best we can to accommodate no matter where the teams are from, whether its Eastern Time zone or Central Time zone.”

While Willson also had to deal with both Lobo teams being in the NIT, not to mention spring baseball and a ski team that had finished third in the Nationals, she took a pro-active approach to supporting coverage and attendance by identifying engaging NCAA storylines and getting that information out to local outlets. “When I saw we were getting Drexel I thought, ‘How cool is that — to get a team that has never been before. I don’t think it would have mattered where they got sent, it would be a great story. That was something that we could push. [With] Western Carolina coming in, having Kellie Jolly Harper as their coach was a storyline that people could get into and understand: here’s a three-time All-American under Pat Summitt and now she’s continuing the legacy bringing her team to the NCAA tournament.”

“I did two quick paragraphs on each of the four schools coming saying here is how they got here, here is who their coach is, here’s who their top players are and if you want more, here’s the link their website. I sent that out to our media and I put it on our website.”

California took it a step further. Though they served as a host, the Bears ended up traveling to play in Los Angeles and Trenton. So, they decided to create some self-generated coverage: “We did a blog,” said Herb Benenson, Assistant Athletic Director/Media Relations. “We weren’t blogging during the game, but it was about everything else that you couldn’t read in the newspaper — putting up pictures of the team on the bus, pictures from practice, or talking about where the team went for a team meal. In less than two weeks it had over 4500 hits. Obviously there were people that were following it, and it was a great way to get some news out.”

BALANCING RISK AND REWARD

The reality for any hosting institution is that there is an inherent financial risk. “We knew that,” said Jay Blackman, Director of Communications and Media Relations at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, “but because of two years of actually making a small profit on each [previous hosting], I guess we really didn’t fully understand the risk. We really thought we’d get Tennessee or the Lady Mocs (who didn’t make the tournament) or at least Vanderbilt. When we didn’t, it kind of set in that ‘Oh, oh, we could be in trouble here.’” That being said, he feels Chattanooga is definitely interested in putting in future hosting bids. “The experience was good. It’s a fun event. It’s an exciting event to see what teams you are getting. Those are the positives–just the excitement around it.”

The feelings are similar at Texas Tech, one of several sites whose host team wasn’t in the tournament. “I think we enjoyed it,” said Chris Cook, Assistant Athletic Director/Media Relations. “When I say, ‘I think’ I know I enjoyed it. And Texas Tech gets a lot of benefit out of it. We’re showcasing our arena and parts of the campus and our name is out there every time a game is shown.”

Also, noted Willson, hosting next year can be used as a source motivation: “It gives our fans and our team one more opportunity to battle and fight. I’m sure Coach Flannigan is putting that up on the board saying, ‘We’re not doing the N IT thing again!’”

AT THE HEART OF HOSTING

Come tournament time, there is much talk of the “championship atmosphere” as a direct correlation to attendance, but Texas Tech’s Cook is convinced there’s more to it than sold out arenas. “Your crowd can dictate that,” he acknowledged, “but I think when those kids are out on the court they hear their fans and they block out that there are empty sections in the stands. They get that there is that championship atmosphere, that they are in the NCAA tournament. Just the fact that they sit in front of a banner at a press conference or they step out onto a court that has the NCAA logos, they know what they are in a ‘championship atmosphere,’ regardless of or how many people may or may not be there. If you asked them today, ‘Are you disappointed?’ I don’t think you’d find one that said they were. I think they’re all very excited to be in the tournament and each round and each step you take I imagine it’s better and better.”

“The people that we have here that put this together,” he added, “I think they make that atmosphere. They give you that feeling by the way they treat [the student-athletes]. We didn’t take the attitude, ‘Well we’re not in it so were going to just go through the motions.’ We did it as if we had four Texas Tech’s in the event. We treated Baylor, a nemesis in the Big 12, like rock stars. And we did the same with South Dakota State, the ‘newbies.’”

“When a student-athlete can say, ‘Hey this season has culminated with this. These people are treating us great. They respect us,’ I think that’s where that feeling comes from — more than looking in the stands and seeing a lot of people. That’s where your championship atmosphere, your sense of belonging and your sense of accomplishment comes from.”

More Audio: Talking the WNBA on NPR’s The Takeaway

Posted in Coaches, WNBA/Olympics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2009 by Helen

After dropping a “why don’t you cover the W we’re in playoff time” email to WNYC/NPR’s show The Takeaway, they actually responded and asked for input. So,  Mechelle Voepel and I woke up early to talk Championships and the W.

SHIFTS IN THE WNBA: Look who’s coaching now – WBCA July, 2009

Posted in Coaches, WNBA/Olympics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2009 by Helen

As the WNBA moves into its thirteenth year, the growth and evolution of the league is reflected as much in the coaches patrolling the sideline as it is in the players playing the games. When the league started in 1997, there were seven female coaches and one male. Almost five years later, the numbers had all but flipped. Now, in 2009, the pendulum seems to be swinging back.

“You are seeing a shift,” agreed Patty Coyle, now in her fifth full year as head coach of the New York Liberty. “When Richie (Adubato) came into the league (1999), Ronnie Rothstein (2000), and Bill Laimbeer (2002), I thought they were great for our game. Here were guys who — with the exception of Laimbeer – had coached in the NBA for a long time. That helped shape this league, in the sense that they had coached at the pro level and there weren’t any women, at the time this league started, who had.”

“Now you see the people who were their longtime assistants — me, Julie Plank (Washington Mystics), Jenny Boucek (Sacramento Monarchs), and Jennifer Gillom (Minnesota Lynx), who was an assistant just recently — that have put in their time and now are getting a chance.  I think it’s great and well deserved.”

Add Lin Dunn (Indiana Fever) and Marynell Meadors (Atlanta Dream) to names mentioned, and now women lead six of the league’s 13 teams.

THE RISE OF THE “NEW” GUARD

Boucek started in the WNBA as an unpaid assistant for Nancy Darsch and the Washington Mystics in 1999. She’s spent her career coaching in the WNBA because, she said,  “It captured my heart.” After four years starting for Debbie Ryan’s Virginia Cavaliers, graduation in 1997 found her back on the court, this time wearing a Cleveland Rockers WNBA uniform.

“Just being part of the inaugural season and seeing the potential of this league to impact the country culturally really hit home with me as a young lady. Grown women were crying at our games,” remembered Boucek. “Little girls, who were wide-eyed, now have a different perception of themselves and their potential, their dreams and their opportunities, not just in sports. They see women getting opportunities that they only knew men to have.”

“And now we have a whole generation of guys who grew up with the WNBA that now have a completely different view of women, too,” she continued. “They grew up looking up to women, respecting women, coming to the games, putting on the jerseys, painting their faces. Now they have a different respect for women that, I pray, will affect their relationships as husbands as fathers. It’s a different generation coming up now with a different view of women.”

Gillom was also a member of the WNBA’s inaugural season, but the journey to top position in Minnesota was not as direct.  The two-time All-Star ended her career in 2003 at the age of 39, then coached the girls high school team at Xavier College Preparatory (Phoenix, AZ) for four years. She joined the Lynx staff as an assistant last year, but after Don Zierden unexpectedly resigned, she was elevated to the head position days before the 2009 season opened.

“When I was playing in the WNBA I used to think that I would coach someday. I always had that thought, even as young as sixth grade,” said Gillom, “But man, I did not in my wildest dreams expect to be a head coach this fast,” she laughed. “Seriously, I thought I still had more to learn before I got to this level. I even thought that I had to put in my time at the college level in order to get to the WNBA as a head coach.” Fortunately she discovered that, when thrust into the role, “I actually I knew more than I thought I did. But, had I not been one of the elite players in the league, I don’t know, would it have happened? It’s hard to say. It makes you wonder. It makes you wonder a lot.”

In contrast to Gillom’s experience, Plank’s move into the ranks of professional basketball and up to the head coach position in Washington seemed to have been a smooth series of steps. “I had been in the college game for a long time (1984) and I was interested in having a different challenge,” explained the first-year head coach. “I’ve always been intrigued by working with the very best players and coaching at the highest level and I had great opportunities in college both at Stanford and Vanderbilt.” Then, in 1999, Plank had the chance to serve as assistant coach with Nell Fortner and go to the 2000 Olympics. “With her going to the WNBA with the Fever [in 2001], I just thought it was a natural progression to continue to coach those players who were going from the Olympics to the WNBA. I have been here ever since.”

THE “CHANGING” OF THE “OLD” GUARD

Currently head coach of the Dream, Meadors established the basketball program at Tennessee Tech, and has helped start three WNBA franchises – Charlotte (’97), Miami (’99) and Atlanta (’08). “I think that that has been my call of duty,” she quipped, “to be a starter person.”

That, as well as being an assistant with several of the league’s teams, has given Meadors plenty of opportunity to see how coaching has changed at the professional level. “When we first started this league, we were all college coaches and we ran the college plays,” she explained. “None of us do that anymore. We’re all running sets. We’re always trying to get the ball to the people that we know that can hit the shot.”

“It’s more sophisticated,” added Dunn who, after a long career in the college ranks, has been coaching professionals since 1997. “In college you’re going to defend the two-man game maybe two ways. We’re going to defend it six ways. We’re going to have a counter to every play that we have. We don’t have two offenses, we have 15. It’s like the difference between Basketball 101 and Basketball 505. These players are sophisticated, smart and intelligent, so they grow their knowledge of the game. It’s just more. Much more.”

The WNBA’s compact schedule is also incredibly demanding on coaches. “Where the college games are played over a six-month period, we are putting them in a four-month period,” explained Plank. “In college you have a six-week training camp and here it’s a three-week period. In terms of the scouting of teams, you play two games a week in college. In the pros, we may play 3 or 4. It’s that same pressure to prepare, only speeded up. You need to be very organized. You have to be able to go from one thing to another quickly. You have to be very concise and precise in your planning. And I don’t want to say it isn’t teaching, because it’s very much teaching. But it’s also more strategy and tweaking. What you do game to game, how you’re going to adjust and how you are going to change things.”

“With Richie, when I first came into this league I thought, as a college coach, I had a pretty good grasp of the game,” said Coyle. “With his knowledge and just his whole way of doing things, what I learned was I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. That really opened my eyes. I think when I was back in college, not that I was ‘stagnant,’ but I was stagnant. Or maybe I’ve matured and opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a lot of different ways to do things. I look back to a year ago and I’m a different coach. Five years ago? Forget about it. Coming into this league? It’s like night and day. My coaching style, being around people that I’ve been around, it’s just constantly evolving and for the better, in my opinion. For the better.”

“I know that there are college coaches that would love the challenge of coaching in the WNBA,” noted Dunn. “Who would love the challenge of coaching the very best players.  You know, those plays that you run? They work a lot better when talented players execute them. Trust me,” she laughed. “But, not only are you leaving one style of the game to move up to another one, but taking the risk of doing it with limited security. In the WNBA, you win or you leave. You win or you get fired. You get better or you get fired. That’s just the way it is. In college, you play hard, you go to class, you go 0-and-3, you’re not going to be fired. In the pros you might. Men or women, that just the way it is.”

PLAYER TO PLAYER DISCONNECT

Something that has surprised Boucek is how unfamiliar many of the newly drafted college players are with the league’s players. “I have a few that were fans growing up and they love talking about old players that played in college or the WNBA,” said Boucek. “But most of them have never even heard of stars that have been through this league. They don’t know them. And it never even occurred to them that they should know them.”

Her solution? “We have named our post moves after older [female] post players. One of our moves is Katrina [McClain] and one of them is Lucy Harris. I make them Google the names of the players and learn their women’s basketball history.”

“They have great players to look up to,” she added. “You don’t make it to the top 11 players on 13 teams and not be elite in every way. Not just talent. You have got to have great character, great perseverance, great work ethic. These are incredible women. They are great role models for college kids, for high school kids. They play hard, they play the right way. There’s no margin of error. If they don’t, they are not going to stay in the league.”

“I don’t know where the disconnect is, but it could only help the college game if college players were watching these players.”

BUILDING ON SUCCESS

“I think initially people wondered if a women’s professional league would last,” said Dunn. “Now everyone at all levels — family friends, college coaches, high school coaches, everybody that has any interest in women’s basketball — has seen the positive impact that the women’s professional game has had on our sport.” That, of course, won’t guarantee the continued existence of the league – a league that has lost it marquee franchise in the Houston Comets and reduced rosters to 11 to address the current economic challenges.

“I think everybody that is in there now, we all have passion for the game and we have passion for the WNBA,” said Meadors. “That’s why we’re trying to make sure that it’s still around 20 years from now. I know the WNBA is going through some growing pains just like the NBA did when they first started. I think it’s just a matter of staying after it, staying the course and keep trying to make a better.”

But, added Dunn, “I sometimes don’t think that the college coaches realize how fortunate they are to have a women’s professional league and how that motivates young girls, motivates high school players, motivates their players to continue to continue to get better, to continue to strive for the next level.” Those same coaches, she’s noticed, are recognizing the cachet of having a player enter the WNBA. “Let’s take a Kristi Cirone at Illinois State,” she posited. “How did that impact that team and that league, that she was striving for the next level? Megan Frazee at Liberty. How did it affect her team, her conference?”

“That brings you additional media attention, gives value to your program, and you use it in your recruiting,” noted Dunn. “I walk into your locker room and there’s a huge photo of the player that got drafted. Now my question to you is, ‘What are you doing to make sure we’re around 10 years from now?’ We are helping you. You must help us. You must support us. You must invest in our future.”

“I want them to come to the games,” said Dunn. “I want them to buy season tickets. I want them to talk about the women’s professional game anytime they can. Talk about the positive impact it’s having on our game.  Share that with corporate sponsors. The last thing we need is a college coach saying, ‘Well I can’t stand the WNBA. I don’t go to the games.’ How does that help? I would never say that about a college game because I love women’s basketball.”

“They stand to lose enormously if this league doesn’t make it. If I were them, I would be doing everything within my power to make sure we make it. And you can quote me on that.”

AN UNEXPECTED CHALLENGE: Making Choices for Fiscal Fitness – WBCA September, 2009

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2009 by Helen

Reflecting on the economic upheavals of this past year Jim Isch, Chief Financial Officer of the NCAA, said, “I think a lot of us thought and were told the sports industry was recession proof. We’re finding out that it isn’t. It’s going to suffer the same impact as many other areas.”

This “re-visioning” has demanded painful budget decisions on national and local institutional levels – from reduced tournament fields, readjusted schedules and travel plans, to furloughs and the elimination of programs. “You hear athletic directors and coaches say it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do,” reflected Dr. Robert Corran, Athletic Director at Vermont where, in the face of a $1.1 million shortfall, the University discontinued their baseball and softball program. “Until you’ve done it, you don’t really appreciate that it really is. This is the exact opposite of what you do. What you do is provide opportunity and increase student-athletes’ opportunities. To be in the position where you’ve got to take opportunity away is almost the antithesis of who you are professionally.”

Though institutions may have different financial resources, all are being tested. Said Nancy Fahey, coach of Washington University (MO), of her colleagues and students: “They are not immune to what’s going on in the country. They understand it and know that we are making adjustments.”

Fortunately, there’s been an open line of communication between the coaches and administration. “What I like about it is that it’s a team effect,” she said. “It’s not like, as coaches, we’re feeling, ‘this is out of our control.’ I know that when somebody asks me about my budget, it’s very reasonable to say, ‘we are not going to take that extra trip,’ or ‘we’ll have to look at our travel size squad.” And, she added “to me, in the big scheme of what’s going on, I’m looking at this like we’re very fortunate. We have to remember that.”

Many athletic programs have used budget discussions to clarify and strengthen their goals and priorities. Faced with an attention grabbing 10% reduction ($338,000), Minnesota State-Mankato’s Athletic Director Kevin Buisman started with a survey. “We asked [coaches] to carefully evaluate everything they did from recruiting to travel to staffing to marketing to support services,” said Buisman. “They were always good stewards of the resources, but I think it’s the first time that they had to be really thoughtful about the budget. ‘Do I value scholarship support or staffing support more?’ That’s a hard question. I told them, ‘these aren’t easy times and there are going to be some difficult decisions. It should be challenging for you to sort that out.’”

“You can attack [deficits] either from the revenue or the expense side,” he explained. “Just cutting expenses is a lot less work. And it was going to be much more difficult to maintain the level of success we’ve enjoyed. So, we brainstormed on revenue generating possibilities: Were there some opportunities where we could invest — not cut, not maintain, but actually taking resources from one program, reinvest them in the others and create new revenues to support other programs? It was a little more balanced approach than to say, ‘let’s just cut these expenses and be done with it.’”

Anticipating cuts, Mark Massari, AD the University of California-Santa Barbara, said, “This is my philosophy: the entire department will have to tighten up. Women’s basketball, men’s basketball, swimming, marketing. Everything. There is a resolve that we have to have,” he explained, “that we are going to keep advancing our programs. Recession or not, there’s a cost to success. We’re going to be one of those schools that resolve to get past this year or two with that ‘let’s all pitch in together, take a piece off our budget and not cut anybody,’ attitude. At the end of the day, that will make us a better and stronger program.”

One of the conundrums facing schools is professional development. “It’s one of the easiest things to cut, yet it may be one of the most advantageous investments for a program,” acknowledged Corran. So, when Vermont was forced to eliminate funding, they created an in-house program. “We are asking each of our coaches, ‘what areas do you feel you have the most expertise in and will you share that with your colleagues?’ In some ways,” he reflected, “those kinds of professional development opportunities can be much more rewarding. You not only have people receiving good information, you’re doing a lot for the person presenting as well.”

Schools may have to rework their relationship with corporate sponsors. “In some areas, particularly at the Division II level and some of these smaller markets,” explained Buisman, “there was a blurring of the distinction between what was a marketing investment versus philanthropy — where they were just doing it to be a good community citizen. Were they getting a great value or return on their investment by having signage in our arena? The next time those [contracts] are up for renewal, you’re going to have to demonstrate that.”

Corran hopes future budgets avoid the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome. “It’s much more about understanding who your institution is, what is important to you and what is important to your student-athlete. It’s about becoming unique,” he explained. “If you really think that through, you’ve got a much better chance of not getting caught up in thinking, ‘they’re spending $5 million so we’ve got to spend $5 million.’ If you’ve got the right idea that costs $500, you’ll be a lot further ahead.”

Recognizing the challenges faced by its membership, the NCAA has taken several steps in order to provide relief. The most obvious action was the dues holiday for all three Divisions. Additionally, the Finance Committee set a target of $4 million budget reduction with a goal to distribute that savings to their institutions. After cuts in print jobs, overnight shipping, staff travel and the more instinctive use of video-conferencing, “I can tell you that we will not only meet our target,” said Isch, ”we’ll most likely exceed it.”

The NCAA has also asked all the Division I cabinets and committees to look at ways the Association’s rules and practices can be changed to save money on campus. “In September we’ll have a series of meetings in Indianapolis where we will gain greater clarity as to what they might be recommending. In October, the Division I board will take action on those recommendations.”

Equal care is being paid to the cost of running championships for all Divisions, said Joni Comstock, Senior Vice-President of Championships. But, as discussions target charter and domestic flights, luggage limits and driving distances, the guiding principals remain unchanged: “We cannot compromise the experience of the student-athlete and we cannot compromise their health or safety,” said Comstock.

Whatever the pressures, “we can’t forget about the 400,000 student-athletes who are living out a dream in our arenas and in the classroom. Ultimately, I have confidence in our membership – in coaches and administrators, that we’ll make changes and cuts that are fair. There will be reductions, but we will be able to preserve opportunities for all deserving men and women.”