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Why Nobody’s Watching Women’s NCAA Basketball Tourney

UConn Womens Basketball
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

There are many out there who don’t even know the women have their own version of the Madness of March.

This isn’t an attempt to say women shouldn’t be playing college hoops, or that it’s not an important part of collegiate athletics. Division I Basketball remains the most popular, most revenue generating, and most participated in women’s collegiate sport.   But compared to volleyball, soccer, even softball growth, it’s eroding.

Since 1982, when the first women’s NCAA tournament took place,   the sport has been added to dozens of schools (currently 343), but the fan base leveled off and over the last decade has actually waned.   While some 2.3 million viewers total watched the two women’s final four games last year,  those numbers have dropped off from a few years ago and those numbers are FAR below the men’s figures.  The average age demographic for the ESPN-based broadcasts (they’ve had the bulk of the tourney for years) is men over the age of 55!   The bulk of the average fans who attend a women’s game in person are women (53%) who are over the age of 50. 

Last season, former WNBA President Val Ackerman released a White Paper Report on the state of women’s NCAA  hoops, prepared along with the NCAA.  While the 52-page document listed dozens of possible causes – and solutions – for “fixing” the sport, it boils down to a key element:   Lack of competition, and a lack of “parity.”

The report showed 205 of the 343 teams averaged 1,000 or less fans at their games, 90 of them 500 or less.

The New York Times also tackled the issue last May. In a piece called A Push to Invigorate Women’s Basketball,”   The paper echoed the same ideas.   A lack of success by the majority of the schools that play.

One of the reasons we LOVE the Madness of March on the men’s side is because of the “little guys,” the Gonzagas,  Florida Gulf Coasts, Daytons and other schools that knock off the big boys.   On the men’s side,  NCAA basketball is tough, competitive, and exciting.  Dozens of schools have developed quality programs  and NBA-caliber players.  The Dukes, and Kentuckys and North Carolinas can’t get all the best players, and the overall level of play as elevated.  It’s not parity in that play has gone down, it’s that so many schools have raised it to be competitive. Look at Wichita State, San Diego State, Wisconsin, and other schools who were “nowhere 5-10 years ago.

One the women’s side, not so much.  Both the Ackerman Report and the Times found of the 343 Division I schools eligible for the women’s tournament, only a handful have been consistent winners.  Besides the recent success of Baylor and Notre Dame,  only 3 schools have truly been consistently successful: Tennessee, UConn (University of Connecticut) and Stanford.  They’ve been to the final four 43 times since 1982.   Half of the 32 women’s titles (16) have been won by UConn and Tennessee.

Nobody wants to watch 35-40-50 point blowouts consistently in the regular season, much less the NCAA tournament.  There were only 2 or 3 20-point wins on the men’s side,  most of them expected in the Round of 64.  Even most of the 10-15 point margins were close games til the very end.

On the women’s side,  schools like UConn, Tennessee, Baylor and Notre Dame  put 40 and 50 point whippings on teams in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8!  In 2010, UConn broke the all-time college basketball consecutive wins record of 88, set back in the early 1970′s by the UCLA mens’ team.     But many critics, and most fans (outside of ESPN and the UConn fan base)  viewed it with a collective yawn, because of the lack of competition in today’s women’s game. It’s not uncommon for the #1 or #2 ranked women’s team to beat another Top-15 team by 20-30 points or more.  That doesn’t happen in the men’s game.

The last time a men’s team went undefeated in winning the NCAA title was the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers under Bobby Knight.  Wichita State made it to 35-0 before losing in the Sweet Sixteen.   Most experts believe we will NEVER again see a men’s team finish with a perfect record – the sport is just too competitive.  The UConn women went 39-0 twice en route to winning titles in 2008 and 2009, and their average margin of victory was 24 points!

Millions of viewers enjoy watching the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team,  Mia Hamm and Brandy Chastain and other stars have defeated the best in the world, and we do watch.   Women’s NCAA volleyball telecasts are growing; and on weekends respectable numbers of viewers watch college softball.  Experts say these sports are slowly but steadily growing because they’re not under the “shadow” of direct men’s teams competition.

Nowhere else in American sports, except Jimmy Johnson in NASCAR, is there such domination of a sport by such a tiny number of competitors or teams.  And we’ve seen how Johnson winning six Cup titles in the last decade have destroyed the TV ratings. Boring!

But until the NCAA can “figure out” how to improve the excitement, competition and yes- parity- of women’s college hoops, TV numbers and attendance will continue to dwindle, and like many across America, we will continue to click past those games on the TV while we search for the next  mens game – or NBA contest.

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