Under the NCAA umbrella for 32 years, women’s college basketball is barely half the age of their men, who just celebrated its 75th anniversary as championship partners with the governing body of collegiate athletics.
The sport has sought a singular vision, a steadying voice accenting its strength, diminishing its weakness, bolstering what languishes.
So far, unification efforts have proven uneven. They’ve led to brief ascents dashed by long rides on a straight path where slight gains are wiped out by slim losses.
Like its players, the sport is in need a team game, as opposed to one alternately dominated by many individual points of view.
Last week, the direction may have finally changed.
Val Ackerman, the WNBA’s founding president and former head of USA Women’s Basketball, now rumored to be the first commissioner of the reconstructed Big East conference, released her “White Paper.”
“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,” Ackerman said.
Enclosed within is the game’s state of the nation, a comprehensive look at where it’s been, where it sits and how to get it moving.
Hired as a consultant by the NCAA championships staff, she conducted over 100 personal interviews over six months with coaches, college presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors and other administrators, television network representatives, NCAA national office staff and outside sports executives.
“There is a collective sigh, almost a universal thank you from so many people in the sport for addressing the issues that so many of us seem to be talking about in private,” said Anucha Browne, the vice president of the women’s basketball championships. “ We have to get after [the initiatives of the report].”
The report is a frank look at the game from all vantage points.
“It is something the game needed. It was time for someone to pull thoughts about all aspects of our game together and use it to move forward,” said Danielle Donehew, the associate commissioner of the The American Athletic Conference.
The report, more than 50 pages, prods as much as it coddles, pointing out the areas of stagnation, even strangulation, as much as those where progress has been made.
“I was very impressed with Val’s work,” Donehew said. “She has put it all into a workable framework. I feel her recommendations are very critical for us to create what the collective vision of the game is. Her perspective is invaluable for all of us.”
The first tangible reaction came Monday when the NCAA held a conference call for conference leaders.
“Val and Anuka Brown initially talked to us at the Final Four,” said Jose Fernandez, the former president of the Big East’s women’s basketball coaches. “They shared some things with us. We asked questions, shared some insight. And that was outside of all the work Val was already doing.”
Fernandez was also on a conference call held last week after the release of Ackerman’s report. But in many ways, the real work begins this week in Nashville, the sight of the 2014 Women’s Final Four, where a 10-person NCAA tournament committee will discuss possible changes in the presentation of championship event.
Over the course of the following months, the document’s line items will continue to be reviewed and discussed by the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee after getting recommendations from Women’s Basketball Championship and other appropriate NCAA committees.
Among Ackerman’s most immediate suggestions are changing the dates for the Final Four from Sunday-Tuesday to Friday-Sunday; assigning host rights to the top 16 teams in the tournament bracket for first- and second-round games; consolidating sub-regionals from four sites of four teams to two with eight and giving those sites long-term deals.
Browne told the Courant last week it’s possible the committee could emerge from Nashville prepared to offer its recommendation to move forward on all counts as soon as 2014.
Geno Auriemma, the coach of eight national championship teams at UConn and the game’s foremost public voice, thinks the time has come for action in every applicable way Ackerman suggests.
“The problem we have in women’s basketball is we want to try and be nice and be fair, fair to everybody, and life isn’t fair,” Auriemma said. “We can’t be polling 365 coaches to ask ‘What do you think is best for the game.’ We’re never going to get a consensus. We got to make some decisions for what is best for the game and people are going to have to maybe suck it up and say ‘this might not be in my best interest, but it’s in the best interest of the game and we need to get moving on that.
“We’ve hit a little bit of a plateau. I think we’ve got a great product but we’re just like any other product, if you don’t keep working to make it better at some point you start to lose that little thing you have that is so unique. I know one of the things we’ve talked about, was little things.”
Ackerman’s vision – Browne calls it the “2020 Vision” – does offer a path for change. It prompts rule changes to speed up the game and create more offense. It advocates restructuring even the way the tournament is played, replacing 1-64 games in the first round with 33-64; essentially a play-in round for the bottom 32 teams.
“It all depends on where the changes need to be made,” Browne said. “There are things than can be implemented quickly and there are others which will require much more time and thought.”
Ackerman calls concentration on improving attendance at regular season and tournament games “a long-term priority,” recommending the NCAA adopt a “Heritage Track,” where efforts would be made to improve the quality of play and fan-friendliness.
She notes how Division I teams shot an average of 38.9 percent from the field, 30.6 on three-point attempts, both all-time lows, and scored 62.1 points per team per game, down nearly eight points from 1981-82.
To address these declines, Ackerman recommends reducing physicality to make it easier for teams to score and looking at other means, like lowering the rim.
“If there is anything we can do to create more offense, it’s a positive thing for the game,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “But let’s look at it this way. When I play UConn, if Geno is OK not guarding my players, I will be OK not guarding his. We can shoot it pretty good if no one is on us. If UConn is willing to do that, that’s fine with me. But I don’t think he is.
“If rules like that are implemented, then I have to sit down as a coach and try to figure out what to do to make it tougher to score. If I let them cut freely, they are going to score a bunch of points. That’s hard for me to consider.”
Ackerman suggests the adoption of incentive programs, through the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, to reward shooting accuracy on a team and individual level. Ackerman suggests a scholarship reduction from 15 to 13 to improve parity and wants the head coaches to take more responsibility in promoting the sport on a “grassroot” level
“But many of our old-guard coaches, the ones that have laid the groundwork to build the game, are also those most willing to get out into the community and take part in grass root efforts to grow it, Browne said. “Frankly, some of the newer coaches have taken a step back, relying too much on their marketing and public relations departments to do the heavy lifting. That does not necessarily work.”
Now all that’s left is for a game that’s called for action to take some. Auriemma thinks it has already made strides.
“I think there are some great ideas, I think [Ackerman] is incredibly bright and she has the best interests of the game at heart,” Auriemma said. “I hope that we can get some of those suggestions acted upon.”