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Greg Johnson | | April 7, 2014

Women’s Final Four Summit to focus on future of the game

  Val Ackerman, who is currently the commissioner of the Big East, wrote the first white paper.

The next step toward positioning and promoting growth in women's basketball will take place April 7 as part of Women's Final Four activities in Nashville.

Called the Women's Final Four Summit, the gathering will draw representatives from all levels of women's basketball, including representatives from USA Basketball, WNBA, AAU, intercollegiate athletic administrators and coaches.

It is the second meeting held since the June 2013 release of a white paper written by then-NCAA consultant Val Ackerman, who is currently the commissioner of the Big East Conference. The first NCAA Women's Basketball White Paper Summit in September brought together NCAA conference representatives, campus athletics administrators, Division I women's basketball head coaches, an on-court official, television executives and other stakeholders of the game.

The summit will be streamed on the NCAA YouTube channel and is scheduled to last six hours. Among the topics that will be discussed: youth development of the game, the business of women's basketball and the overall state of women's basketball.

"This summit marks the first time that representatives from all levels of women's basketball come together to discuss the most pressing issues facing the ongoing growth of our game," said Anucha Browne, the NCAA vice president for women's basketball championships. "Many of the things that we have discussed over the past 18 months have roots in all levels of the game. In order to adequately address them, we need to engage the stakeholders of the game at all levels. Improving women's basketball needs to be a collaborative effort, and we expect this summit to get us closer to a shared vision."

Browne and Ackerman see the Women's Final Four Summit as a chance to consolidate ideas about women's basketball from a diverse group of stakeholders, who all have the common goal of enhancing the sport, both on and off the court.

"When it comes to thinking about long-term issues in women's basketball, this meeting has the potential to be very constructive and productive," said Ackerman, who conducted more than 100 personal interviews during the 2012-13 basketball season with coaches, college presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors and other administrators, television network representatives, NCAA national office staff and outside sports executives to compile her white paper.

While Ackerman doesn't see this summit as a first step and certainly far from a last step, she is excited to hear the conversations about women's basketball.

She hopes true progress will be made.

"We have to get past the point of spotting the issues, and now we have to be involved with action steps and solutions." Ackerman said. "This meeting, while it will be dialogue-oriented, can help shape the agenda and get some concrete steps where we can move forward."

One area that is ripe for better organization, Ackerman said, is the NCAA governance structure for women's basketball.

She currently chairs a subcommittee of the Collegiate Commissioners Association that is looking at that issue. Ackerman notes that different working groups and subcommittees exist in the Division I Women's Basketball Committee, Women's College Basketball Officiating, the NCAA Women's Basketball Rules Committee, the Women's Basketball Issues Committee and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association.

Ackerman likes that so many groups are looking at the game, but developing a clear direction is difficult when so many voices are contributing on different issues.

"To me this is a priority," Ackerman said. "We have to address the process and the structure, and then it will be easier and more efficient to address the issues. That way we can move ideas through the governance system more efficiently."

The Division I Women's Basketball Championship is also evolving. After the release of the white paper, the Division I Women's Basketball Committee adopted changes to the format of the tournament.

Starting in 2015, all preliminary rounds will be played on Friday-Sunday and Saturday-Monday intervals rather than the current Saturday-Monday, Sunday-Tuesday dates. Additionally, the top 16 seeds in the tournament will host first- and second-round games on their campuses next season.

However, the regionals will be held at neutral sites, which is a request from members of the WBCA. The coaches feel the games played in the regional semifinals and finals should not have an automatic home-court advantage.

In 2017, the Women's Final Four will move to Friday-Sunday dates rather than the current Sunday-Tuesday structure.

The committee made the changes to enhance the student-athlete experience and be more accommodating to fans' schedules, which could lead to greater attendance at the games.

But collegiate women's basketball still faces a challenge: some spectators are more fans of particular teams than they are of the sport.

"I was at Iowa State for the first and second rounds," said Dru Hancock, the incoming chair of the Division I Women's Basketball Committee and senior associate commissioner of the Big 12 Conference. "They've built up the fan base that is very loyal. Even with the kind of winter they had this year, the fans still came out to support the team and averaged around 10,000 a game. That is really remarkable."

Despite the support, Iowa State was upset 55-44 by Florida State in the first round of the tournament on its home floor. Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly still took to Twitter after the game to thank the fans for their support and asked that they come out and watch the Florida State-Stanford game that took place Monday night in Ames, Iowa. A crowd of 4,118 - which is a good showing considering the home team had been eliminated - showed up for the game.

Fennelly's tweet is an example of the kind of collaborative spirit the game's supporters believe is needed for women's basketball to grow.

"The programs around the country are going to have to keep building up the relationship with the fans," said Hancock, noting that Gary Blair, the head coach of 2011 NCAA women's basketball champion Texas A&M Aggies, goes into the stands to pass out candy to the fans. "When you go recruiting as a coach, it is about building relationships to get a kid to sign with you. When you are seeking fans, I believe it is the same thing, and you have to build relationships."

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