There are 52 weeks in a year. So why does the NCAA schedule its two biggest events to start during the same damn one?
For years, it has boggled the mind. The stupidity became even more pronounced this year, when the tournament shifted away from its usual Saturday-Tuesday schedule to adopt a Friday-Monday schedule for the first two weekends and move the Final Four to Friday/Sunday. I don't have the slightest idea why this was done, but it only served to further bury the women’s tournament.
What do you think will get more media coverage on Sunday – the women’s title game or MLB’s Opening Day?
Ultimately, the question is Why? Since there’s no good answer to that question, I have a very simple solution: move the NCAA Women’s Tournament back two weeks, so it kicks off on the same weekend as the Men’s Final Four. Here’s why:
A More Logical End to the Regular Season
The men’s game has Championship Week, a made-for-TV extravaganza that starts with the one-bid leagues fighting for their tournament lives and ends with the bright lights of the power leagues. It’s a beautiful progression that ends with Selection Sunday, which gets everyone talking on Monday about their brackets.
In the women’s game – to pacify TV – the power leagues go first and spend a week doing nothing in advance of Selection Monday. The Women’s Selection Show is an afterthought each and every year, swallowed whole by the men’s bracket.
Now, if we move the start of the Women’s Tournament to Final Four weekend, the women’s game can do its own version of Championship Week as the NCAA Tournament is in its regional stage. That gives the women all week to play games and fill up available airtime on cable networks. Sure, there will still be some competition from the men’s game but it will come against conference tournaments – not the NCAA Tournament.
Look at this past Sunday, as the UNC/Kentucky game ended and the sports calendar cleared up. Boy, wouldn’t it be nice to take advantage of a giant college basketball audience and do the women’s Selection Show then?
A More Traditional Schedule of the First Weekend
The beauty of the men’s tournament is the overload of games on the first Thursday and Friday as many consider those the two best days of the sports calendar. Why couldn’t the women recreate this?
As we go into Final Four weekend, there is no college basketball on Thursday or Friday, save for the NIT final. What a perfect opportunity for ESPN to utilize all of its channels to provide full, national coverage of every game – not just UConn games, and not reducing the sport to wrap-around coverage. Give the games a forum and see what happens.
The timing of the Final Four gives the women’s game ample opportunities to schedule second-round games on that Saturday and Sunday. It would help attendance, it would help exposure and it would help TV ratings.
No Competition for The Regional Finals
There is only one sporting event on television the week after the Final Four and it’s The Masters. Nothing tries to compete, and nothing should try to compete. But the Masters only takes place during the day.
On Thursday and Friday nights, ESPN can use the Masters to lead into the regional semifinal round of the Women’s Tournaments. On the weekend, ESPN can either do doubleheaders at night or schedule the games around the Masters – i.e., one at noon, one at 8pm – to maximize the audience.
This past Sunday night, Baylor lost to Mississippi State in a huge upset and a great sign that the women’s game has far more parity than it gets credit for. I didn't even know that game was on* because I’m a UConn fan and ESPN only seems to promote when UConn is playing.
*Fun fact: during the East Regional Final, CBS ran a promo saying that the women’s tournament continued on Monday night. It did not mention there was a game Sunday night.
A Final Four Weekend To Own
You’re a college basketball reporter. Do you cover the men’s Final Four or the women’s Final Four? That’s a no-brainer for any media outlet. But why does the NCAA make them choose?
This becomes especially grating when one school has teams in both versions – as South Carolina does this year, and as UConn has in the past. How is that fair to those fans and those universities?
If the women’s tournament was moved back two weeks, its Final Four would occupy a weekend that is currently devoid of huge sporting events. Just like the men own the first weekend in April, the women could take over the third weekend.
Most importantly, the games could be played on a traditional Saturday/Monday schedule that will feel familiar to fans. This year’s semifinals are being played on a Friday night, with the second game set to tip around 10 p.m. It’s a shocking lack of understanding of the fan base – have you been to a UConn women’s game? Yes, there’s 10,000 people there but they won’t be staying up until 1am to watch basketball.
Furthermore, ESPN can devote the proper amount of attention to the event. The network does an admirable job of promoting the Women’s Final Four but they also have to focus on the men’s version. Those staffers can’t be at two events on the same weekend, but they can’t be at two events on separate weekends.
A Proper Showcase for Women’s Basketball
I believe the overwhelmingly majority of women’s basketball detractors have a) never watched a full game in their life or b) only watched the UConn women destroy a hapless foe. That will certainly never change in the current format because the biggest, and best, games of the year are overshadowed.
The biggest problem facing women’s basketball is perception. The WNBA is perceived as inferior because it’s played in the summer, an afterthought to the NBA season. The Women’s Tournament is perceived as inferior because it’s played in March, an afterthought to the men’s tournament.
This shouldn’t be. The women’s game doesn’t need to drastically overhaul its rules or push the Final Four up to February or back to June. It needs a tweak. It needs room to breathe.
A simple shift of two weeks could mean everything. The sport is healthier than the national media gives it credit for, because the national media is preoccupied in March. Just like the rest of us.