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Women’s Basketball Gets Down to Business

At the Final Four Summit, the sport’s leaders will discuss how to increase popularity and draw a crowd

Women's Final Four Summit

Follow the action by live-streaming all three sessions.

Representatives from all levels of women’s basketball, including representatives from USA Basketball, WNBA, AAU and intercollegiate athletics administrators and coaches, will come together April 7 at the Women’s Final Four Summit. Among the topics considered at the gathering will be youth development in the sport and the business of women’s basketball.

This gathering will continue the conversation started in November 2012, when the NCAA championships and alliance staff contracted Val Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA and first female president of USA Basketball, to assess the current state of intercollegiate women’s basketball.

Ackerman’s report, the Women’s Basketball White Paper, was released in June 2013. Ackerman conducted more than 100 personal interviews over the 2012-13 academic year with coaches, college presidents, conference commissioners, athletics directors and other administrators, television network representatives, NCAA national office staff and outside sports executives.

Following the release of the report, the Women’s Basketball White Paper Summit took place in September 2013 at the NCAA National Office. The gathering brought together conference representatives, campus athletics administrators, women’s basketball head coaches, an on-court official, television executives and other stakeholders of the game to have frank discussions about the future of the sport.

Building attendance and becoming financially viable is a long-term goal for women’s basketball.

The business side of the sport will be discussed by a panel Monday at the Women’s Final Four Summit in Nashville, where representatives from the NCAA membership and national office, USA Basketball, the WNBA, high school, Amateur Athletic Union and club teams gather. The other two panel discussions at the summit will center on the state of women’s basketball and youth development in the sport.

The event will be live-streamed on NCAA.com and the NCAA YouTube channel.

Despite its growing popularity, women’s basketball continues to face financial challenges. The topic of how to reduce losses for many programs and championship events was a key component of the Women’s Basketball White Paper, produced by Val Ackerman and released last June. Before she was named the commissioner of the Big East Conference, Ackerman – the first president of the WNBA – was hired as a consultant in 2012 by the NCAA championships and alliances staff to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the sport.

Bigger crowds at women’s basketball games lead to larger audiences for the championship games, which create a better experience for players. While the Women’s Final Four is still played in basketball arenas, the Men’s Final Four has been played exclusively in domed stadiums since 1997 to accommodate the crowds.

For the white paper, Ackerman spoke with more than 100 people, including coaches, college presidents, conference commissioners, athletics directors and other intercollegiate administrators, television network representatives, NCAA national office staff and outside sports executives before writing the white paper.

Four decades after Title IX paved the way for the growth of women’s sports, Ackerman believes women’s basketball has advanced to the point where key decision-makers must consider how to make the sport self-sustaining.

While there have been some grassroots initiatives in the past, such as NCAA women’s basketball marketing grants, the efforts can be better organized with everyone in the room.

Anucha Browne, the NCAA vice president for women’s basketball championships, is interested in hearing the conversation on this topic.

“We tell the people on NCAA campuses that they need to do a better job marketing the sport, but we don’t really tell them how,” Browne said. “We need to have a larger discussion that involves all of the levels in the game. I’m sure the WNBA has some great ideas because they come to this from a business standpoint.”

From the NCAA perspective, larger crowds will enhance the experience of college women’s basketball players by creating a more exciting atmosphere, which in turn could draw the casual sports fan to tune into a televised game.

Increasing the number of people who are willing to spend their entertainment dollars to watch women’s basketball will give a boost on the financial ledger and increase growth of the sport.

Ackerman believes intercollegiate women’s basketball has some unfulfilled commercial opportunities. She also feels that those who market the sport in college and those who market the game at the professional level can share ideas that could benefit both levels of play.

“In the WNBA world, there are no Title IX issues and no entitlements,” Ackerman said. “You are selling tickets and making money to pay the cost of running these teams, or you are not in business. WNBA teams have come and gone for that reason. The market decides in professional sports. There is not a cloak of immunity against market forces. In women’s college athletics, in particular women’s basketball, we have to understand the commercial realities in a better way.”

Current WNBA President Laurel Richie and the league’s Vice President of Marketing Hilary Shaev are both planning to attend the summit and share their perspectives.

Throughout the year, they meet with chief operating officers and marketing staffs of the 12 franchises in the league. Richie said those meetings create a steady and constant real-time sharing of best practice programs that are working around the league.

The WNBA will enter its 18th season next month.

“It is all a collaborative effort between the league and the teams,” Richie said. “We are focused on building a genuine and sustainable fan base. When we do things well, there can be a wonderful cascading down to the college level, to the high school level and even levels below that so we become the destination for young girls who have the talent, the skills, the drive and discipline to become professional athletes.”

Shaev added the teams and the league constantly communicate about marketing, ticketing and sponsorship initiatives.

“We have a whole department here dedicated to consulting and working with the teams to make sure that when something great happens that everybody else knows about it as well,” Shaev said. “It gives them a chance to implement it as well.”

Sharing information among 32 conferences and 343 schools at the Division I level is problematic.

“I won’t say it is easy to do, but when the goals and the passion are there it is absolutely possible,” Richie said. “The opportunities are similar across the board as we look to drive attendance and establish the women’s game as different, but not less, than, the men’s game. There is a cause element that comes with our game since this sport is played by women.”