If you read nothing else about the Women’s Final Four

In what’s becoming an annual pre-Final Four media routine, Bloomberg has published what I regard as the most essential piece about the finances, marketing and outlook for big-time women’s college basketball that’s been written in some time.

But unlike some previous treatment of the same issue — such as this very good Big 12-oriented account by The Austin American-Statesman before last year’s Women’s Final Four in San Antonio — Bloomberg reporter Curtis Eichelberger’s examination goes beyond an emphasis on money and revenues and explores the realities facing those trying to broaden the sport’s appeal.

It’s an effort that’s obviously tied to money, but also illustrates the difficulties that the NCAA, conferences and various college athletic departments have faced in expanding its base audience.

Even Connecticut, which is gunning for its eighth NCAA championship this weekend at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and has been the only women’s program to turn in a regular profit, is awash in red ink. Top programs are budgeted typically around $2 million to $4 million, with coaches like UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt of Tennessee pulling down low seven-figure salary packages.

A few Bloomberg excerpts that I think are worth keeping in mind, starting with comments from former NCAA women’s basketball committee chairwoman and Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade, a strong advocate for pushing the women’s game in the direction of profitability:

“There is intrinsic value in being able to carry your own weight. For the amount of resources going into intercollegiate women’s basketball, there’s going to be a time where there has to be a rational decision of, is it worth it? . . . It makes a difference whether you make money. It gives you a seat at the table where the decisions are made.”

Yet despite regular marketing and attendance initiatives, that scenario may not not realistic. Ohio State senior associate athletics director Ben Jay:

“I don’t foresee women’s basketball breaking even. We’d love it to. We are marketing the brand and pushing the program and all the fan experience elements. But we don’t see women’s basketball subsidizing other sports.”

Here’s the link to the whole story.

The most important issue facing the women’s game from an exposure standpoint may be renewing the NCAA women’s basketball television package. The current 11-year, $163 million deal with ESPN, which includes a number of men’s and women’s non-revenue sports, expires at the end of the 2011-12 season. McGlade is in favor of pulling the women’s basketball component away from the other sports, Eichelberger reports, “no matter how small, and use that as a baseline to set new goals for developing the women’s television product.”

I certainly agree with that. Assessing the true media value of that product is a necessary step away from the current piggy-backing of women’s games that are tied to conference packages. I’ve had a senior administrator at a major conference tell me that it doesn’t place a financial value on its women’s package that is lumped in its all-sports contract. This individual wouldn’t speculate on what that dollar figure might be.

It’s time for this to change, and for the sport’s advocates to embrace what I’ve referred to as women’s hoops 3.0:

“This sport, and others women play, needs to attract more fans and more corporate and media support in order to gain a more durable foothold in a sports world still feeling the effects of the recession. Those with a professional stake in the advancement of women’s basketball recognize that those gains are no longer possible through political and social activism alone.

“The time in which we’re living now — with a concerted effort underway to ensure that women’s hoops, and women’s sports, will succeed as businesses — will help determine whether those young women will be able to live out their dreams.”

Perhaps I’m far too obsessive about this, and I know I will enjoy the games once they finally get underway Sunday night. I love the matchups that are on tap with Stanford vs. Texas A & M and UConn vs. Notre Dame. The splendid Maya Moore will conclude one of the greatest college basketball careers ever this weekend, with Stanford’s veteran squad, a spunky bunch of Aggies getting here for the first time and the fine young Irish point guard Skylar Diggins also featuring.

But the constant backdrop of social and cultural issues is bearing out my obsession. On Sunday morning’s “Outside the Lines” program on ESPN, the topic won’t be the basketball, or anything I’ve addressed here but the issue of transgender athletes. ESPN got Kye Allums, who is a male-identified member of the George Washington women’s team, to sit for an interview. I’ve been asked to appear on a panel discussion on the same program because of what I posted here last fall.

There’s nothing really new to report here, and I question OTL’s choice of subject matter on the same day of the biggest weekend in women’s college basketball, and that’s a point I’ll need to make on the air.

Especially when trying to bring the women’s game to new audiences remains so vexing, even for girls who already play. Says Rick Risinger, the Indianapolis-area high school coach of current UConn starter Kelly Faris:

“Boys have a tendency to watch a lot of basketball, whereas girls don’t tend to watch as much. The Final Four will open up and expose girls to basketball at a high level. This could set off a spark in some girls.”

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One Comment

  1. Matt Zemek
    Posted April 2, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    I can say that I legitimately watched the Women’s tournament as a fan a decade ago and the Women’s Final Four (not the whole tourney) beginning with Charlotte Smith’s 1994 winner over Louisiana Tech.

    Yet, in full candor, I still don’t watch women’s basketball on a year-round basis because the men are a bigger drawing card and offer a ready supply of history, cultural resonance, and emotional identification dating back to my first years as a sports fan (1981-1982, when I was 5 or 6 years old). Doing some women’s basketball freelance writing has certainly helped me stay in touch with the sport. I must be honest in saying that I might not be as regular a viewer if I didn’t have some work responsibilities connected to the women’s game. I enjoy watching the women for many of the reasons John Wooden espoused in his later years, but I have to be honest with myself and say that I didn’t arrive at this point of interest on my own. Not entirely, to be sure.

    How much more difficult it must be to reach the wider marketplace.

    How to get a bigger audience? I wonder what this Butler-VCU men’s semifinal, combined with the women’s runs of Gonzaga and Green Bay, will do for mid-major basketball irrespective of gender.

    Wendy, you referred to (via link) “a spark in some girls.” Maybe this weekend plus the Gonzaga/Green Bay runs will do just that.

    Terrific post, and kudos for spreading the right message against the tide of predictable recycled material.