Trying for 100
Women’s basketball can’t forget about profit.
by Clay Kallam
I’m a high school coach for a suburban team in Northern California. We’re pretty good, 20-8 so far the season, but nothing special. If we play a home game (without a boys’ game), we’ll draw 150 or 200 fans, mostly parents, boyfriends and a few community members. If we play with the boys, add about 100; if we play before the boys, against a rival, the gym will be full in the fourth quarter of our game, about 1,000 people.
This past week, I covered two college games in the Bay Area for the Associated Press. Both involved No. 19 Gonzaga, and since a ranked team is playing, AP always sends someone to write a brief story about the game. The two opponents were Santa Clara and USF, very bad teams this season, but schools with a history of basketball success for both men and women.
If there were more than 100 paying customers at either game, I’d be stunned. At tipoff, while enduring yet another national anthem (is there any more pointless exercise?), a third grader could have counted the spectators, and though the gyms filled up as the game went on, it was still embarrassing.
After all, women’s basketball at the Division I level is supposed to be a real sport, and the games are supposed to be events that matter. Granted, Santa Clara and USF have combined for more than 50 losses this season, and neither team really has anything to offer the casual fan, but how can support for the college game be justified if an average high school team sells more tickets? How can administrators justify the expense of a Division I program if the team can barely muster triple digits in attendance?
In these harsh economic times, which promise no quick recovery, these are more than just idle questions. Santa Clara and USF spend substantial sums on their teams, flying them all over the West, paying plenty of staff (including sports information directors who take care of AP writers) and treating them, thanks to Title IX, almost as well as the men’s programs. At some point, though, someone is going to ask whether all this makes any sense, and whether scaling back is the logical next step.
First, only one of the schools in the West Coast Conference has a football team, so it’s not as if their athletic programs are generating tons of money. The men’s basketball teams do OK, but they’re not selling out either – and there may well come a time when universities are going to look at interscholastic sports through cost/benefit-tinted glasses.
Second, the WCC is not alone. This same sorry scenario is played out at numerous colleges across the country, where even the presence of a nationally ranked team with two nationally recognized players (in this case, Gonzaga’s electric point guard Courtney Vandersloot and smooth post Heather Bowman) can’t generate any interest at all outside of an extra reporter at the media table.
Finally, the BCS schools, which support the NCAA thanks to football and men’s basketball, have consistently made noise about forming their own association and keeping the hundreds of millions of dollars in profit for themselves. There’s more than a little logic in this, as without the BCS bonanza, the NCAA is just the NAIA with one different letter.
Now, I’m not advocating the elimination of women’s basketball at the collegiate level, or the elimination of any sport, but it certainly makes sense for the powers that be in the women’s game to take a hard look at the reality of the situation. There are a lot more schools dealing with what Santa Clara and USF are dealing with than there are schools in the Big 12 drawing 5,000 a night, and sooner or later, pointed questions are going to be asked.
Proactive steps to save money – maybe by getting rid of the money-losing women’s tournaments? – certainly wouldn’t hurt, nor would a reassessment of the marketing and presentation of the games. At a St. Mary’s women’s game, for example, the pregame music was hip-hop (which I don’t mind, by the way) played at an earsplitting volume that made it almost impossible to talk. Why? Because for men’s games, there are students in the stands, who love the music and aren’t bothered by the volume. But students don’t come to women’s games, as any administrator knows, so why is the same music played for an audience of adults, parents and young girls? And in a larger sense, why are promotion and marketing for the women’s teams almost exactly the same in concept (though not in financial support) as the men’s?
It’s easy to be complacent, and think that things will always go on as they have, with coaches and staffers making nice livings – but there are no guarantees, and certainly not if a collegiate women’s basketball can’t generate more fan interest than the high school game down the street.
The most dangerous course is to keep trumpeting the national attendance numbers and the ESPN ratings while ignoring the reality on the front lines, but that’s exactly what’s happening. In a world where many difficult decisions are going to be made in the next few years in all aspects of our society, the sport of women’s basketball needs to do everything it can to make sure those decisions don’t cut the economic heart out of the game.