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Doug Feinberg | The Associated Press | April 8, 2014

NCAA hosts summit to discuss state of women's game

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With the build up to Tuesday night's matchup of undefeated teams in the women's national title showdown, a group of stakeholders in the sport met to discuss how to increase interest in the game and keep the momentum going after the final buzzer of the Connecticut-Notre Dame matchup.

Interest has become stagnant during the past decade with ratings flattening out after reaching a high in 2002. Attendance has fallen in the NCAA tournament. Looking for ways to overcome the challenges, the NCAA hosted a summit with coaches, administrators, broadcast partners and fans to find ways to grow the sport.

''It was a great opportunity to get a lot of different groups together and try to get people on a similar page,'' said Anucha Browne, the NCAA vice president of women's basketball championships. ''We wanted to try to raise the level of consciousness that there's a need for a more unified voice across the sport.''

Most of the ideas discussed came out of a paper written by Big East commissioner Val Ackerman last spring for the NCAA. It was a chance for the sport's governing body to share them with a bigger audience.

The summit was broken down into three sessions -- youth basketball, the business of basketball and the state of the game.

And there are problems in each area.

''Our conversations were a lot about business priorities,'' said WNBA president Laurel Richie, who was a panelist at the summit. ''What's the highest priority? Attendance? Level of play? What can we do to help all those. I don't get to be around all these different groups all the time, so it was a great opportunity to get more involved with constituencies that I normally don't have as much interaction with.''

Attendance is always a major business issue for the sport.

This past year the NCAA moved the regional rounds to home sites to get more fans in the stands. The idea worked, attendance was the second-highest ever for an NCAA tournament. The drawback was coaches complained about competitive advantages, although in the end, only two of the four host schools reached the Final Four.

Because of the coach's strong concerns, the NCAA is returning the regionals to neutral arenas next year. The tournament also once again will have the top four seeds in each region host games during the opening two rounds. The NCAA also will move up each round before the Final Four by a day, with the first games of the tournament played on Friday.

Probably the most notable move will be changing the dates of the Final Four, which will go to a Friday-Sunday format in 2017.

Tweaking is fine, Ackerman said, but not the solution to the sport's problems.

''There is no easy answer,'' Ackerman said. ''We have to come up with some sort of long-range plan. It's OK to try different things but we need to see what works and what doesn't.''

The focus on youth development is part of an effort increase participation, which will impact the state of the game.

The youth panel was spearheaded by USA Basketball. Areas that were discussed in addition to participation included improving the quality of play, giving young players a better experience and unifying the youth community.

''I think we were really encouraged because a lot of the feedback we received during the question-and-answer portion aligned with the thoughts and ideas and processes we started to develop,'' USA Basketball youth program director Jay Demings said.

With more girls playing, that could eventually mean a deeper talent pool that could lead to a larger number of schools having a chance to win the national championship -- so the same few teams wouldn't be at the Final Four each year.

UConn has reached seven consecutive national semifinals while Stanford has been in six of seven and Notre Dame was in the past four.

''It would be great if more teams reached the Final Four,'' Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. ''Our game is not at that point yet, but it is still growing.''

The NCAA hopes the sport has a growth spurt based on discussions at the summit. The ideas need to be followed up by actions, but Browne said it was a good beginning.

''It can only help us get this great game to the next level,'' she said. ''Getting people to talk about it in an organized manner is a great way to start.''

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