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Women's NCAA basketball: Val Ackerman offers solutions, but action, unity needed

Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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What should have been a resounding call for action in college women’s basketball landed with a quiet thud a few weeks ago. Val Ackerman’s white paper on the state of the sport was a far-reaching, much-needed wake-up call for the sport, but like too many big events in women’s basketball these days, it passed nearly unnoticed by the sports world in general.

That’s too bad, because her recommendations could be the key to revitalizing a sport that has been largely on the decline in terms of attendance, TV ratings and general attention over the past five years.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how many people outside the world of women’s basketball pay attention as long as the people within it take action. Ackerman, the first commissioner of the WNBA and the recently named inaugural commissioner of the new Big East, has shown the way. Will women’s basketball follow?

“There may be things in here people like a lot that are logistically difficult,” Ackerman said in a phone interview this week. “They may have cost complications that need to be vetted. I didn’t do a lot of that in the paper. That’s the next phase: We like this, how would this work? There are financial implications and TV implications as well. From the people that have gotten back to me, there’s a lot of enthusiasm that this has been corralled and put together in a way that can serve as a long-term road map.”

It wasn’t long ago women’s basketball was a sport on the rise, the Final Four playing in bigger and bigger arenas, television coverage blooming, stars developing and moving on to play in the WNBA. But since 2008, attendance locally and nationally has declined, as have TV ratings and interest in the Final Four.

According to NCAA figures, Duke, annually in the top 20 in attendance, had its second-lowest average attendance since 2001 last season. The Blue Devils, who once drew in excess of 6,000 fans to Cameron, averaged 4,958. North Carolina’s average of 2,580 was its lowest since 2005. N.C. State, which once surpassed North Carolina, averaged only 1,923 fans, its lowest attendance in more than a decade.

That reflects the national trend, and last fall, the NCAA reached out to Ackerman to look into it. She spent six months interviewing coaches, administrators, television executives and outsiders to come up with ideas for improving the game. Ackerman took pains to gore every sacred calf in the name of making things better.

Byes and home games in the NCAA tournament for higher seeds, instead of subregionals selected in advance. Reduce scholarships from 15 to 13. Explore rule changes. Tweak the timing and location of the Final Four. Stop using the men’s game as a template and set a unique course for the women’s game.

It’s a smorgasbord of changes, and therein lies the danger. Across the country, many coaches lauded the report’s suggestions while picking and choosing only the specific ones that appealed to them. (Duke’s Joanne P. McCallie and North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell, to their credit, have expressed a willingness to try anything that might improve the game.)

The big-time coaches like the idea of NCAA tournament games hosted by higher seeds, but don’t touch their scholarships. Coaches at smaller schools don’t mind spreading out the talent pool, but don’t take away their spots in the round of 64. And so on.

Ackerman’s proposals are serious stuff -- but only if coaches are serious about taking action and not guarding their turf.

“The appetite for change is definitely there,” Ackerman said. “Whether it’s all of it, some of it, all of it in sequence, some of it in sequence, that will have to be left to the others to figure out. Now that I’m with a conference perhaps I can work on it from the inside. We’ll see what happens.”

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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