By Kathy Orton
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 30, 2007
Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt is worried about what she sees. Although the Lady Vols continue to be one of the more popular teams in the country, others are struggling to draw fans to their NCAA tournament games. Anyone watching this year's tournament on television can't help but notice the empty arenas. Teams accustomed to playing in front of capacity crowds during the regular season are competing before meager audiences in the most important games of the year.
Summitt isn't the only one concerned. Though this weekend's Final Four is sold out at 20,000-seat Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, women's basketball is wondering where its fans have been. For a sport that was enjoying strong growth over the past decade, this recent lack of interest in the NCAA tournament comes as a surprise. What is driving away the fans? Coaches cite three factors: predetermined sites, game times and ticket prices.
"I do think it's time to rethink, to look at where we are in the women's game," Summitt said. "I supported neutral sites because there were so many people out there that felt like we were ready. Clearly, we're not ready. It's disappointing to see all the empty seats in almost every gym. . . . I would hate to see us go into another postseason and experience what we have this year. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But right now, it appears that it may be broken."
Before the NCAA tournament moved to predetermined sites three years ago, the top four seeds hosted their first- and second-round games. To avoid such home-court advantages, the NCAA decided to select sites in advance. Teams can still host first- and second-round games -- Michigan State played its first two games at home this season, as did Pittsburgh -- but the better seeds don't always have home-court advantage.
The drawback is that women's basketball fans haven't shown a willingness to travel for their teams. Some of their reluctance has to do with where the teams are being sent. Fifth-seeded George Washington played its first two games in Los Angeles; few Colonials fans made the trip. It also was a journey for the three other teams at GW's subregional: Boise State, Texas A&M and Texas-Arlington. As a result, only 878 fans attended the first session of games at the 10,280-seat arena.
GW didn't fare much better in its region semifinal. The Colonials were sent to Dallas to play North Carolina at 17,767-seat Reunion Arena. Only 3,875 fans showed up for the 9 p.m. game.
North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell was not a supporter of predetermined sites when they were introduced.
"I felt like it was too early," Hatchell said. "Most of the time, we got to host because we were one of the top 16 teams, and we got great crowds. You say, 'Well, that gives the higher-seeded teams a home-court advantage.' But you know what? You play the whole season for that. . . . We went to the predetermined sites for several reasons. I think some of it was for the convenience of television. Television has helped us tremendously, but yet it's hurt the attendance."
Television is also blamed in part for inconvenient starting times. Being a North Carolina fan these days means being a night owl. The Tar Heels haven't had a game earlier than 9 p.m. during the tournament.
"You do what you have to do, especially for the TV exposure," Hatchell said. "I do think it's awful late, especially on a school night because to me our fans are senior adults and families with young children. And when your game starts at 9 or 10, they're not going to be there."
North Carolina isn't the only one with late games. Connecticut has played nine consecutive NCAA tournament games after 9 p.m. ESPN knows it can count on these teams to draw viewers.
"Obviously we look at ratings, and we see who has a trend of rating well," ESPN's Carol Stiff said.
But that's not ESPN's only concern when it comes to scheduling. The cable network also has to worry about scheduling against the men. Because the North Carolina men played Georgetown in Sunday's late game, ESPN had to schedule the North Carolina women late or risk a ratings disaster.
ESPN isn't happy about the empty arenas either. Stiff said the network will work with the NCAA to remedy the problem.
"It's a big-time concern for us," Stiff said. "With the amount of competition we have in the market for people to browse through all the channels, it's important that it's a welcoming environment, an exciting environment. . . . We sometimes have to shoot the arena in a different way than we would like to. We'll talk to the NCAA, and they'll talk to us. We're just there to try to improve it."
One of women's basketball's allures used to be its affordability. That's not always the case now. First- and second-round games in Hartford, Conn., cost $75 for an all-session ticket. Tickets at Stanford were $63. Minneapolis and Austin went for $53. And the predetermined sites mean most fans have additional travel expenses if they want to follow their favorite teams.
Not everyone has turned away from women's basketball. The Women's National Invitation Tournament continues to be a popular attraction. More than 11,000 fans watched Wyoming beat South Dakota State in a region final. The Cowgirls drew 7,300 fans for their game against Oregon in the round of 16.
Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma is hearing what the fans have to say. He hopes the NCAA is listening.
"I think at times you find that those who put these things together do some things wrong," Auriemma said. "And if you took a long look at it, there would probably be things we'd change to be a little more fan-friendly. And if they did, there wouldn't be as many empty seats. I don't think people are going to go for this stuff too much longer. Maybe this is their way of saying we shouldn't be playing at 9:30 or charging what we're charging. People are voicing their opinions."