While it doesn’t merit the same headlines as the NCAA’s awarding of championship sites, that organization’s strategic plan for its women’s basketball program in all three divisions does have ramifications for the sports business industry. In particular, it stands to affect cities with plans (or hopes) of hosting.
The strategic plan, announced earlier this week, is intended to guide decision-making in the sport across DI, DII and DIII through 2024. Its four pillars include the following:
- Unify and grow the women’s basketball community.
- Empower student-athletes to reach their full potential.
- Celebrate and elevate the game.
- Create an inspiring experience for all involved.
While these are all very general points, they drill down into more important action items that affect the sports business industry. The first concern – obviously – pertains to the siting of championships. And here the report has quite a bit to say. Over the years, complaints about the women’s basketball championships have included less-than-robust spectator attendance and less attention being paid to the championships as a whole.
One overall objective is to ensure quality championship format, site selection and management. The NCAA identifies key goals; these include:
- A review of championship formats (e.g., various seeding/bracketing procedures; regional locations
- Enhancement of site selection and management strategies
- Leaving a women’s basketball legacy in the host community
- Evaluating ongoing opportunities for joint championships.
Already, at least one suggestion has been made, though it is not spelled out in the report: the permanent relocation of women’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games to Las Vegas.
There is already a precedent for this; the baseball/softball World Series have been held in Omaha and Oklahoma City for years, with great success. And Vegas, already the site of boxing matches and bullriding, has cemented itself as a destination for basketball by hosting the PAC-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament each March.
Coaches are already getting behind the concept – particularly those who are tired of playing to partially-empty arenas during crucial match-ups in March.
"I absolutely love the idea," said Turner Thorne, a past president of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "It would be amazing for our game to build equity in Vegas, a place that's a destination, where a lot of people want to go. I've been doing this 30 years in Division I college coaching. We keep moving backwards. We can't play on neutral sites, we're not filling the stands. It's just kind of to me a no-brainer. I really hope we're looking at it because I think it would be unbelievable for our game."
And it was sportscaster Debbie Antonelli, according to USA TODAY, who proposed the reboot for the women’s basketball tournament: “For the last eight years, the college basketball analyst who works both men’s and women’s games has lobbied for the NCAA women’s tournament to scrap its current format of four regional sites and bring all 16 teams together in Vegas for one major showcase event.”
The impetus for the this finally taking place is last year’s Supreme Court’s landmark ruling 6-3 to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), the federal law that had limited sports betting to one state, Nevada, for the last 25 years.
And while all that is still hypothetical, it is also essential to note moving the match-ups permanently to Vegas would address another key goal stated in the report: promoting fiscal responsibility and sustainability. Vegas is, after all, a desirable destination and by working with the sports commission on site, NCAA representatives could leverage better publicity for the tournament, as well as better attendance.
Sports commissions across the U.S. apparently will be tasked with working closely with NCAA reps to help achieve other stated goals of the plan, including offering additional educational opportunities for membership, media and fans (e.g., mock selections) as well as opportunities for game promotions and fan engagement. Additionally, the NCAA wants to market the championships as a whole, from opening rounds to final championship – but with a growing emphasis on the early rounds (an area that has suffered in media attention, spectator attendance and overall economic impact in the past). It also counts this area as key to improving the student-athlete experience.
The NCAA has also indicated a goal of engaging with organizations that oversee and administer youth basketball programs, such as USA Basketball, AAU, National Federation of State High School Associations and others. The ongoing goal, leaving a women’s basketball legacy in the host community, is seen as essential to the success of the program.
Another goal, exploration of the opportunities for joint championships, is already at work. The NCAA announced the national championships for Divisions I, II and III men’s and women’s basketball will be celebrated as combined championship events in Atlanta during the 2020 NCAA Men’s Final Four and in Dallas as part of the 2023 NCAA Women’s Final Four. This marks the second time for both the men’s and women’s events that the championships for all three divisions will be held in the same city. Men’s basketball previously hosted combined championships in Atlanta in 2013, while the women crowned three national champions in the same venue in Indianapolis in 2016.
The 2023 Women’s Final Four games will take place March 31 and April 2, with the Division II and III national championship games played April 1. All games will be at American Airlines Center in Dallas, which was the site of the 2017 Women’s Final Four. ESPN and ESPN2 will broadcast the Women’s Final Four, while CBS Sports Network is scheduled to broadcast the Division II national championship game, with coverage of the Division III game a possibility, as well. The Big 12 Conference will serve as host for the 2023 Women’s Final Four.
The strategic plan is in motion; whether it can help resuscitate the economics of women’s basketball is an open question. While much of the plan remains general in nature, it will be interesting to watch the NCAA work toward its goals – and even more interesting to see what parts the sports business industry will play. A copy of the full plan is available at this link.