Why the NCAA women’s tournament could think bigger than Albany and Portland

Why the NCAA women’s tournament could think bigger than Albany and Portland

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

ALBANY, N.Y. — The numbers confirm what people paying attention to women’s basketball are feeling: Attention and interest in the sport continue to increase exponentially.

Monday’s second-round NCAA tournament game between Iowa and West Virginia averaged 4.9 million viewers and was the most-watched tournament game ever, not including Final Four or national championship games, according to Nielsen. Attendance for the first two rounds set records for the third consecutive season. The tournament selection show averaged 1.94 million viewers, a 52 percent increase from 2023 and the most-watched iteration in 20 years. Last week’s First Four games saw a 24 percent increase in viewership.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark has been a driving factor, but she is far from the only one.

“Our championship is again delivering,” Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball, said in a statement. “Record crowds, ratings, incredible performances and evolving storylines will continue to make the next two weeks a must-see for fans across the world.”

The tournament resumes Friday with region semifinal games in Albany, N.Y., and Portland, Ore., and there’s a belief around the sport that it may be time to rethink the process in which the host cities are selected to better capitalize on the game’s popularity. The regional sites are booked the next two years (Birmingham, Ala., and Spokane, Wash., in 2025; Fort Worth and Sacramento in 2026), with the Final Four scheduled through 2031.

People are paying attention now,” analyst Debbie Antonelli said. “It’s the perfect time to create. With the resurgence of the game from a marketing and media standpoint, it’s a great time to look at all options.”

The NCAA began using a two-site format for its women’s basketball regionals last year after the success of San Antonio as a single-site host in 2021 during the pandemic. Division I women’s basketball committee chair Lisa Peterson said the condensed regionals feel like mini-Final Fours with six games and eight fan bases. Location has been a big part of the planning and scheduling process, and the committee has tried to hold regionals in areas where there was a high interest in the women’s game to help ticket sales. The increased popularity nationwide has provided more flexibility moving forward, Peterson explained.

Albany, for example, has hosted both men’s and women’s tournament games in different years, but it isn’t the easiest location to travel to, particularly from the West Coast. It also doesn’t have the entertainment options of larger markets. The economics have changed, and that will be considered during the next bidding process. The footprint of the area and size of the arena will be bigger factors on top of the logistics of being able to host eight teams and increasing crowds. Peterson also noted the desire for regional sites to facilitate experiences beyond just the action on the court.

“There’s more to it now,” Peterson said.

Antonelli has been preaching the need to think bigger for years. She has thought there’s an opportunity to mimic the men’s College World Series in Omaha and women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City with a single destination that fans and the location can plan on and maximize. That kind of shift may seem drastic, but the idea is to think in bigger terms about what’s possible now that there are more options — and more host cities interested — than in the past.

“We want to be able to showcase our game at the highest level to the greatest audience, on and off the court,” Antonelli said. “Our game right now is winning. We’re winning on a big level. Our stage is incredible. The product is good. Now let’s help the ancillary pieces around it. The way we present the game, how we sell it, let’s take it to another level. It’s a mind-set change because we can’t keep doing it the same way.

“We have this great product. Let’s just look at how we’re presenting it in every aspect.”

There have also been discussions about changing the format of the opening rounds of the tournament, but that has gained less traction. The men’s tournament features neutral host cities for the first and second rounds, while the women still play the first two rounds on the campuses of the top four seeds in each region. That ensures stronger crowds yet also provides a significant home-court advantage. The sentiment this week among coaches in Albany seemed to support the current format.

“Obviously, I know that there’s feeling either way, but for myself and our situation,” Notre Dame Coach Niele Ivey said, “we work really hard and we fought to be able to be in that position to host.

“Again, what you want to bring is sold-out crowds. You want to bring the energy. You want to bring the fan base. I think that that was accomplished.”

Still, the bottom line is interest in the game has continued on an upward trajectory and people around the sport sense now may be the time to consider all options to capitalize on that.

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