Thursday, March 24, 2016
NCAA WBB first- and second-round attendance should not be what the postseason is about
So, yes, we've heard the argument that first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament needed to go back to the top 16 teams hosting because of concerns about attendance. The move -- backward (this is what programs used to do before moving to schools bidding to host) -- came in 2015.
Let's accept that as a given, though we'll give our input below. Here's what not arguable: Last weekend's first and second rounds drew 142,860 fans to arenas.
In March 2011, when predetermined sites were used for the first and second rounds, 146,787 fans attended games.
So how is this working again? We actually had fewer fans this weekend than five years ago?
We have several problems with top seeds hosting again, a format that benefits the Power 5, especially when it's said on the heels of the rhetoric of growing the game. Allowing programs such as Delaware and Gonzaga to host grows the game taking it to place beyond the usual. Because here's what allowing the top 16 seeds to host does: those teams, the "mid-major" word we hate to use, the ones seeded 1-4, are going to be the usual suspects. By that we mean Stanford and Texas and Ohio State and Arizona State and other Power 5 schools get the nod for the best seeds.
We've seen programs such as James Madison, Duquesne, George Washington, St. Bonaventure, heck, even Delaware behind Elena Delle Donne, not get rewarded at seeding time for spectacular regular seasons because they are not one of the Power 5 schools. These programs don't waste time thinking about a 4 seed; they're praying they're not in that dreaded 8/9 game, which befell Duquesne and GWU this season.
Looking specifically at the numbers, Stanford drew 1,961 fans for its second-round game against South Dakota State (think Gonzaga was thinking, "Geez, why didn't you let us host?"). Other attendance from the second round: Texas (2,345), Ohio State (2,558) and Arizona State (2,957). Wait, didn't we return to this format because the NCAA cares about attendance? Because the players deserve a "championship experience." Are crowds of this size producing a championship experience?
Ask Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant how that worked out for her Spartans, who were unable to host despite their seeding because of a conflict with their building. Merchant's Spartans instead played at Mississippi State where they were beaten and had to deal with numerous logistical issues. Among her comments to the Lansing State Journal:
"At the end of the day, we shouldn't be playing on anybody's floor, even our own. If we want our game to grow, we need to get off of people's home courts It's stupid. It makes no sense."
Especially if you're trying to "grow the game," and more fans attended in 2011 when teams bid to host as opposed to 2016 when teams found out a few days prior they'd be setting up shop in their home arena for a subregional and subregional final.
Imagine you've got a big show coming to your arena, only you can only tell folks a few days in advance You can't plan or market. Now if your court happens to reside in Storrs or South Bend, no problem. But for many teams, it's not that clear cut. Syracuse, for example, didn't have a great chance of hosting until after the ACC tournament, when the Orange reached the championship game.
Ah, you say. Go back to the old format and many venues will still be empty. The problem of a higher seed playing on a lower seed's home floor will muck up the fairness of the tournament. Bingo! we say. It's crazy not to have the culmination of your season played out in the fairest way possible. College men's hockey debated this very topic and opted for fairness over attendance.
One caveat, the Final Four is at a neutral site. There is not an attendance issue. This is the direction we'd like to see the women's tournament take because ultimately, compromising your tournament for attendance sake, seems like a step back, not forward.
Quite honestly, the discussion needs to move forward in a new direction. We want more people to see this game and be introduced to a sport full of delicious storylines and terrific players, but regrettably, the game itself, no matter where it's played, struggles to attract fans that who aren't in the seats just to see their team play. In 2016, we have fans of teams, not women's basketball fans.
We'd rather see the discussion center on innovative ways to fill arenas with prospective fans of the sport. Have a concert after? Why not? Involve frats, sororities and student clubs? Let's try. Call up Old Dominion and ask how they manage to put on the best Kids Day in the sport? We'll give you the number. Make the players approachable? How about that? Right now the idea of a kid getting to shake the hand of her favorite player is impossible. Get an autograph or selfie? Forget it.
The basketball, as good as it is, as much as we're a fan of it, is not going to get new people in the door. That's what needs to be addressed along with making the playing field fair to all 64 teams involved, not just the teams that are seeded 1-4.
Until then, the NCAA is doing a disservice to the sport it claims it wants to grow.