By Greg Johnson
Val Ackerman, the founding president of the WNBA and past president of USA Basketball, says a prevailing sentiment among stakeholders throughout intercollegiate women’s basketball is that the sport needs a jolt in order to spark growth.
While no one she spoke with thought the game was “broken,” the underlying theme throughout her many interviews was that women’s basketball has plateaued in recent years and that there is “a tremendous appetite for change” in the way the sport is played, marketed and managed.
Ackerman, who was hired as a consultant by the NCAA championships staff to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the sport, conducted over 100 personal interviews over the past six months with coaches, college presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors and other administrators, television network representatives, NCAA national office staff and outside sports executives.
She also received feedback from hundreds more in the membership through additional teleconferences and meetings held during her research-gathering phase.
Ackerman summarized her conclusions and recommendations about how best to position and manage the sport in a “white paper” delivered to NCAA Executive Vice President of Championships and Alliances Mark Lewis and NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball Championships Anucha Browne.
“Val had the opportunity to engage some of the greatest minds in the game about potential improvements to the framework of the game and championship, and we are appreciative of her work and proud of the resulting white paper,” said Browne. “Her recommendations are a blueprint for us to follow as we look to get underneath and examine all of the ways to impact our student-athletes and improve the game we love moving forward.”
The Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, along with Lewis and Browne, will review Ackerman’s findings and recommendations and decide on the next best steps.
“The sport has made tremendous strides over the years and there are many positives to report,” said Ackerman, who played basketball at Virginia, where she graduated with a degree in political and social thought in 1981, and later earned a law degree from UCLA in 1985. “When compared to other women’s sports, women’s basketball takes the lead in terms of its strength at all levels – from the high school game, to the WNBA, to Olympic team success. But while there is much to be proud of, women’s college basketball needs to take some bold steps to attract more fans, and key NCAA stakeholders are eager to put together a plan to do just that.”
In the white paper, Ackerman proposes a common vision for the short- and long-term future of the sport so it can be reinvigorated and grow commercially while continuing to advance the NCAA’s educational mission. Ackerman said she heard considerable support for the view that stakeholders in women’s college basketball should move beyond the mentality of doing things the same way the men do and begin to establish a separate identity for the sport.
Ackerman also identifies increased attendance at regular season and tournament games as a long-term priority. To this end, she recommends that the NCAA adopt a “Heritage Track,” where efforts would be made to improve the quality of play and build on women’s basketball’s existing reputation for being fan-friendly and the leader among intercollegiate women’s sports.
Second, she advocates a parallel “Innovation Track,” where the focus would be on distinguishing women’s college basketball from the men’s game in new and exciting ways. This could include innovations in playing rules, the tournament, uniforms, game presentation, broadcast look and off-court activities. The goal of this track is to re-energize the sport and in that way stimulate a new wave of interest among student-athletes, coaches, sponsors, the media and fans.
Many of Ackerman’s interviews included discussions about the Division I women’s tournament and whether changes might be needed to improve attendance and visibility.
As a first step, Ackerman recommends switching the Women’s Final Four dates back to a Friday/Sunday format instead of the current Sunday/Tuesday format. Many of the people she spoke with believe it is burdensome for fans to give up two weeknights and return home on a Wednesday to attend the Women’s Final Four under the current format.
Another of Ackerman’s recommendations is to have the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee explore using a two-site, super-regional format for the second week of the tournament when the regional semifinals and finals take place, rather than the current four-site format.
The concept calls for sending eight teams to each of the regionals, which could create more of a festival atmosphere, potentially attract more fans and cut costs. This would mean conducting four regional semifinals and two regional finals at the same site, ideally in cities where interest in women’s basketball has proven to be high.
She also said there was sentiment within the membership to allow the top 16 seeds in the tournament to host first- and second-round games.
Currently, these sites are predetermined. The rationale behind the proposed change is to improve attendance, enhance the broadcast look of the games and create a better in-arena atmosphere for the student-athletes.
Ackerman said that many coaches, who have historically favored neutral courts for early-round play, now believe the need to improve attendance outweighs competitive equity concerns and may also be ready to support such a change.
Ackerman’s report also addresses a potential reduction in the tournament field to 48-52 teams because of parity concerns. While she did not favor this change, she recommends that the NCAA study the potential use of a different competitive format that would allow lower-seeded teams (33-64) to play each other in the early rounds, with the winners advancing to play one of the top 32-seeded teams. This would create more competitive games and a better experience for the student-athletes from the lower-seeded teams.
One of the questions Ackerman explored was whether the tournament should remain alongside the men’s tournament in the future (i.e., in 2017 and beyond) or whether it should be shift to a different time frame to create separation and avoid being overshadowed.
Because it is difficult to predict outcomes, she recommends that the NCAA experiment and conduct a future Women’s Final Four on the weekend following the men’s tournament to determine the effects. Also in the spirit of innovation, she recommends that the NCAA consider taking a cue from tennis and combine the men’s and women’s Final Four, also on a one-time trial basis, with the goal of creating an unparalleled showcase of the best in college basketball.
Finally, should future women’s tournaments remain separated from the men but in the current time frame, Ackerman recommends that a multi-year site be established for the Women’s Final Four, so that equity can be built in a single market along the lines of the College Baseball World Series in Omaha.
Ackerman’s research showed that during the 2012-13 season, Division I women’s teams shot an average of 38.9% on field-goal attempts and 30.57% on three-point attempts, both all-time lows. Scoring also hit an all-time low of 62.12 points per team per game, down nearly eight points from 1981-82. Historically, shooting and strong fundamentals have been staples of the women’s game, so the trends are noteworthy.
To address these declines, Ackerman recommends that playing rules be re-examined with an eye to speeding up the women’s game, reducing physicality and making it easier for teams to score. She also recommends that a “rules laboratory” be created so that radical rules suggestions (such as lowering the rim) can be properly tested.
She suggests developing incentive programs to reward shooting accuracy, such as partnering with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association to create an annual award that goes to the coach or program that has the highest field-goal percentage.
Similarly, Ackerman proposes that an annual award be created for the women’s player who achieves the highest field-goal percentage, potentially in conjunction with the Naismith Hall of Fame.
To increase competitive parity within the sport, many of those Ackerman interviewed suggested that grant-in-aids for women’s basketball programs be reduced from 15 to 13, so that the better student-athletes could be spread to a higher number of programs. The remaining two scholarships could be used to fund other women’s sports teams.
Some of the people Ackerman spoke with also recommended that the season be shortened and conducted over one semester. For instance, the season could start after the college football regular season is concluded and then end after the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. Because of the issues involved, Ackerman recommends that further study on this topic be undertaken.
She also noted that some interviewees questioned the value of conference tournaments and advocated shortening them (e.g., to four or eight schools) or eliminating them.
On the subject of officiating, Ackerman says that many interviewees identified the quality of officiating as an ongoing priority for the sport.
She noted that other NCAA committees are already at work on strategies to improve officiating during the regular season and tournament and recommended that these efforts be intensified, particularly with respect to recruiting and training.
Ackerman also recommends that coaches and representatives from the officiating community meet more regularly to discuss areas of concern.
Following four decades of growth under Title IX, Ackerman believes women’s basketball has advanced to the point where key decision-makers should now adopt more aggressive sales, marketing and promotional strategies so the sport can generate bigger crowds and, in turn, better financial results.
Ackerman noted that grassroots marketing is vital to the success of women’s college basketball and that many interviewees saw a pressing need for coaches to remain actively involved in cultivating fan support in their local markets.
So that the sport’s economics can be better understood, she recommends that the NCAA national office staff establish a database to monitor the annual revenues and expenses for the top 100 Division I women’s programs.
She also recommends that a system be developed to facilitate the sharing of best practices concerning advertising, ticket sales and community programs.
Ackerman also suggests devising a separate corporate sponsor sales approach at a national level to entice incremental spending in women’s basketball with existing NCAA partners or new partners.
In order to improve viewership of women’s games on television during the regular season, she recommends a more aggressive strategy to promote these contests so viewers know where to find them, including through enhancements to the NCAA women’s basketball website.
Ackerman recommends that an annual convention of key stakeholders in women’s college basketball be conducted at the Women’s Final Four, so that business and basketball issues can be better vetted and comprehensive growth strategies can be devised.
Finally, Ackerman noted the effectiveness of cause marketing in women’s sports and suggests the creation of an additional national initiative that appeals to a younger demographic.
Ackerman notes that the governance of intercollegiate women’s basketball is highly fragmented and that a different structure might be desirable to help generate new ideas, share information, and streamline decision-making.
To achieve these ends, she recommends changes to the existing NCAA committee structures so that the roles of the different committees are more clearly defined and additional, business-oriented areas are addressed.
First, she proposes re-naming the Women’s Basketball Issues Committee the “Planning Committee.”
This group would be expanded and made up of 20-25 people that would include at least three current or former coaches, as well as the chairs of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, the Women’s Basketball Rules Committee and the Women’s College Basketball Officiating, LLC Board of Managers. The committee’s primary areas of focus would include legislation; finances and long-term planning; marketing and communications; and executive development.
The rationale behind this proposal is to create a more centralized leadership function with respect to the non-basketball areas of the sport, particularly revenue generation.
Ackerman noted that the marketing of women’s basketball is complicated because seniors, women and families make up the majority of fans in-arena, but the television audience is mostly male.
Ackerman believes a clearer strategy is needed to grow the audience, which will in turn require a more focused effort at both the national office and the committee level.
She also proposes that the committees dealing with the tournament and “sport” issues be reviewed so that overlap can be eliminated and key areas such as officiating, playing rules and girls’ basketball skills development are properly addressed by all relevant stakeholders.
In addition, she recommends that an advisory panel be created so that individuals outside of the NCAA membership structure have an opportunity to contribute ideas.
Ackerman believes the time is right for women’s college basketball to conduct a rigorous self-examination and chart out its next phase of growth.
She points to historical growth periods in the sport starting with the Title IX legislation that passed 40 years ago.
Ackerman was a product of that era when she entered Virginia in 1977. At that time, there was only one athletic scholarship at Virginia for the entire women’s basketball team, and Ackerman received half of it. By the time she graduated in 1981, every woman on the team was receiving a full or partial scholarship.
The next significant period of growth came with the emergence of Connecticut’s program in the 1990’s. This led to the Huskies’ storied rivalry with Tennessee, and, according to Ackerman, the heightened interest this match-up created contributed, in turn, to the launch of the WNBA in 1997.
The next period of growth came in the early to mid-2000s. The 2004 national title game between Connecticut and Tennessee drew an all-time high rating of 4.28 on ESPN.
“Overall, there was a very strong feeling among the people I spoke with that the game needs a sense of energy and urgency,” Ackerman said. “Stakeholders are keen on pursuing growth and revenue strategies that will allow women’s basketball to maintain its luster and better stand on its own two feet. What’s exciting about women’s basketball is that it has commercial possibilities that other women’s college sports simply do not have.”
Browne said that action in regard to many of the recommendations will be swift.
“The women’s game is at a critical time in its continued growth,” Browne said. “Key decisions made now will have a significant impact on the game in the future. The NCAA staff, Division I Women’s Basketball Committee and stakeholders in the game will continue to be diligent in pursuit of the issues affecting the integrity of the game, while balancing decisions as to what is best for the student-athlete and the game of women’s basketball. Val’s recommendations will be closely reviewed, with the expectation of action being taken as soon as decisions are reached.”