Aug. 3, 2009

Courtesy jconline.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Playing before big crowds or seeing every game on television?

Neutral sites or home court advantage?

A balanced bracket or one that is shaped by geography?

Those are a few of the questions facing the NCAA Division I women's basketball selection committee, along with the nation's coaches, when discussing the tournament's future.

The Final Four is usually sold out, attendance at the regional semifinals and finals hasn't been great, but the biggest issue is what to do with the first and second rounds.

No one has a clear answer.

"As coaches, we're not real sure what we want," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "Do we want people in the stands? Is it TV coverage? Is it the balance of the bracket? Is it what's the most fair thing to the student athlete?"

In a perfect world, the selection committee, the coaches and the players would have it all: large crowds, neutral sites and plenty of television coverage. But the first and second rounds are far from a perfect model.

"We have to determine what works right now and what we should be working towards," said Sue Donohue, vice-president of the Division I women's basketball championship.

At the Final Four in St. Louis, Donohue hinted that the committee might be willing to sacrifice some early round television coverage for improved attendance. Awarding the top 16 seeds with home games was also discussed, rather than the current setup of 16 pre-determined sites.

But without a local team, attendance suffers.

In last year's tournament, the 16 sessions that featured a home team more than doubled its average attendance figure (5,646) from the 16 sessions that didn't have a local team (2,551).

At its summer meeting last month, Donohue said the committee wants to give pre-determined sites an opportunity to succeed. In 2005, the committee switched from 16 pre-determined sites to eight, creating more neutral court matchups and upsets but the crowds didn't follow.

"We have to give it a chance to see if it will gain some traction," Donohue said of the current format. "Do we want to get to where our first and second rounds are neutral sites, like our regional and Final Four? Yes. Is that where our game is right now? Probably not."

Donohue also said losing television coverage is not in the game's best interest. Since 2003, ESPN has televised every game of the tournament.

"It would be detrimental if we lost that right now," Donohue said. "We're in a great situation with ESPN. The opportunity to continue what's best for us from a TV standpoint is important."

Hatchell, who guided the Tar Heels to the 1994 national title, supports the idea of awarding the top 16 seeds with home games. The veteran coach believes it would add more meaning to the regular season and help build crowd support for the postseason.

"If you're one of the top 16 teams in the country, you've earned the right to host," Hatchell said. "If we want people in the stands, we have to go back to the top 16 teams hosting."

That idea, though, goes against ESPN's wishes. In order for the network to broadcast the entire tournament, they prefer early round sites in the Mountain and West time zones. Last year, only two of the top 16 seeds -- California and Stanford -- were located in the West time zone.

ESPN also favors pre-determined sites in order to line up production equipment. But Hatchell disputes that theory, saying the network covers the college baseball tournament and "they only know a week ahead where the sites are. It can be done."

When a record 214,290 fans attended first and second round games in 2004, the format was 16 pre-determined sites. Old Dominion coach Wendy Larry believes that's the best option right now.

"The top 16 seeds was something we had forever and I appreciate that as a mid-major that I could earn a seed," Larry said. "If we're looking to grow the game, the pre-determined sites seem to be the way to go to a certain point. I would like to think we'll go to places that have great fan bases and enthusiasm for women's basketball."

The consensus appears to be finding areas of the country that support the game. Sites for next year's tournament have already been selected but the committee is starting to examine bids for 2011.

"The idea of the regular season counting for something is nice, not necessarily in an actual home game but even if it's a game in your area," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "An example for us would be Greensboro.

"We're at the point where I do like the regular season to count for something substantial but we're still trying to figure now what that answer is."