As the women’s basketball salary bubble grows . . .

As I wrote during the Women’s Final Four, there’s growing media interest in some of the astonishing pay scales for a growing number of top women’s college basketball coaches.

During that same weekend in Indianapolis, there were quite a few coaches taken aback by the news that UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell was jumping to LSU after just three years in Westwood, where she had developed a Top 10 program while earning an annual salary of around $300,000. On the bayou she’ll pull down $700,000 per annum with incentives taking it to $900,000.

There are no typos or extra zeroes in that last sentence. The commas between those zeroes are placed correctly.

Caldwell reportedly turned down an offer from Virginia, ostensibly to stay at UCLA, and was seen greeting fellow coaches at the Final Four in what turned out to be her final days as the leader of the Bruins. On the same day the semifinal games were to be played at Conseco Fieldhouse, she had traded in her sparkling light blue and gold attire for purple and gold threads (a move which has West Coast women’s hoops blogger Sue Favor thoroughly disenchanted).

At the bottom of his Monday column, Shreveport Times LSU beat writer Glenn Guilbeau asks a question that likely will persist as this trend escalates:

“Still it is somewhat alarming and mysterious that a coach of a non-revenue sport like women’s basketball, which for the most part has not been very popular here, would make more money than the coach of the immensely popular sport of LSU baseball (though not this season) and as much as LSU’s two football coordinators.

“ ‘There’s a whole series of things that sometimes are hard to explain to me,’ LSU chancellor Mike Martin said. ‘We pay football coaches more than athletic directors, and we pay athletic directors more than chancellors. But a lot of it has to do with the market and the fact that we now have a very strong long term investment in women’s basketball. She is certainly a first-rate coach.’ ”

While “the market” for elite women’s coaches figures to grow, where is any semblance of a plan to try to produce a nominal amount of revenue, or at least try to draw better crowds? Despite being one of the best women’s programs in the country — including five consecutive Final Four appearances between 2004-08 — LSU has struggled to get a consistently good home draw.

LSU has already gotten busy trying to reverse that. Caldwell’s telegenic likeness has already been plastered in a billboard campaign underway in Baton Rouge, and that’s a good sign. The school has a very marketable, attractive and dynamic coach who is being paid a generous salary to procure and develop talent and put a winning product on the basketball court. I don’t doubt that the former Tennessee standout will do this, especially in a part of the country that is awash with talent and the kind of football cash not only to compensate her but also to fund her program.

It’s also encouraging that more athletic directors want to be ambitious about women’s basketball and build winning programs. Hence, the increasingly high value placed on the best coaches “the market” has to offer.

But as Final Four weekend stories by Bloomberg and USA Today also illustrate, the sport is one of the biggest money guzzlers in college athletics. Even UConn, which unlike other women’s programs has its own media deal with Connecticut Public Television, is reporting losses and lower crowds, even with the fabulous Maya Moore matriculating.

The stakes in non-revenue college athletics — men’s and women’s — are rising, and so with this comes the demand for the money to pay for them. Women’s basketball is funded as if it were a revenue sport, but the reality is that at far too many schools there’s not enough “emotional” support beyond the money. UConn coach Geno Auriemma sledgehammered this point during the NCAA tournament last year, accusing too many ADs of not caring about the sport at all, dispensing just enough money to keep Title IX hounds at bay and little more:

“What has to happen is that enough athletic directors and university presidents need to make more of a commitment to the women’s game so they will put more pressure on their coaches to coach better. They don’t put enough money into the programs to demand from their coaches that they play at that level.”

Well, that’s certainly changing, isn’t it?

Perhaps the growing expenditures will prompt some ADs to get serious about maximizing their investment. At future hiring press conferences, I’d like to see them also outline how their departments plan to market and promote the program, offer ticket packages targeted beyond the sport’s fan base of seniors and younger families and get the community more interested in women’s basketball.

Some people I’ve spoken with who are involved in the business and marketing side of the women’s game doubt that separate media deals for women’s basketball, at the school, conference and national levels, will ever come to pass. The women’s NCAA tourney package that includes other non-revenue sports (and that expires after next season) probably cannot stand on its own.

So the pattern of “insane jack” being paid to major conferences in new football TV deals will have to become even more insane. And even if attendance grows, revenue for women’s basketball will be paltry because tickets remain at bargain prices. That Caldwell billboard also advertises season ticket packages ranging from $50 to $125.

What isn’t talked about with any kind of candor in the sport is why the women’s game isn’t more popular, even during the NCAA tournament, in spite of so much television exposure and the money that’s being fed into it. But that’s a topic for another time.

For the time being, I’d like to expand on Guilbeau’s question to pose this one:

How high does “the market” for coaches become in a sport that does not, and probably will not, produce any serious revenue?

Because while the laissez-faire ideal may be handsomely rewarding the likes of Nikki Caldwell, the real economics of this sport reflect a far more troubling, and possibly unsustainable, reality.

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One Comment

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