One in an occasional series on the history, personalities and issues in women's college basketball leading to the Final Four April 6 and 8 in Tampa.
By GREG AUMAN | Times Staff Writer
In many respects, women's college basketball seems to have arrived. ¶ Coaches such as Texas' Gail Goestenkors are making big money. ESPN has a deal to televise the entire NCAA women's tournament. ¶ The Final Four sells out each year, including next month in Tampa. ¶ The skill level is such that Tennessee's Candace Parker declared recently she's turning pro after her junior year. ¶ Much seems rosy in the women's game until you get to the bottom line for the 2005-06 season: a staggering $169-million in losses. ¶ That total is for the 333 schools in NCAA Division I as reported to the U.S. Department of Education. The figure is probably conservative because 80 schools reported their expenses matched their revenues, to the last dollar.
Still, proponents say it's a worthwhile investment in giving women's basketball a chance to catch up to the older and more established men's game.
"The emphasis has been placed on putting more money, more energy, more manpower on women's basketball," said Candice Storey, senior women's administrator at Vanderbilt, which lost more money on women's basketball than any school in 2005-06. "It's just a slow process getting it to translate to real dollars."
At the sport's highest level, in the 11 largest conferences, the losses are more than $1-million per school, with 18 schools losing more than $2-million, according to the DOE. Men's basketball, by comparison, generated a $240-million profit in the same year, largely on two things the women still lack: a lucrative TV package and strong attendance. The women's game is still working to build the national audience and fanatical interest the men have enjoyed for decades.
"It takes money to turn it around," said Pat Babcock, associate athletic director at Connecticut, a rare elite-level program to show a profit. "Absolutely, women's basketball is still very young. We have made great strides, but we still have a way to go."
Babcock can remember when Connecticut wasn't a dynasty, when Geno Auriemma and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt hadn't arrived as national fixtures, when there weren't 10,000 fans in the stands every night to see the Huskies.
"You had the same 15 people that would come out for games, good, loyal people," said Babcock, who has worked at UConn for three decades. "I remember the field house leaking. We had the same pains every other school has had, and little by little, you see things change."
Women's basketball loses so much money because expenses are high.
A dollar spent on women's basketball brought an average return nationally of 58 cents in 2005-06, which is comparable to men's baseball (66 cents) or other women's sports such volleyball (58), soccer (59) or softball (57).
But because women's basketball can so directly be compared with the men's game and there's pressure to create equitable opportunities for women, expenses are high. Take Florida, which saw its men's team win national championships the past two seasons, while its women went 9-22 last year. Only seven schools spent more money on women's basketball than Florida in 2005-06, but the Gators lost $3.07-million. Only Vanderbilt's loss of $3.38-million was more.
"Women's basketball is arguably the most high-profile women's sport within the NCAA," said Linda Tealer, UF's senior associate athletic director. "The success of your women's basketball will net you exposure on the other (sports). The TV exposure far exceeds anything else in women's sports, but I would not say it's more of a priority than other programs."
Growing the game
Want an example of a program turning the corner? Try Syracuse, which is showing that success on the court can translate to results in the stands.
In going 9-20 last season, the Orange averaged 453 fans, the lowest attendance in the Big East; this season, with a 21-7 record and national ranking, Syracuse has more than tripled its home crowds, averaging 1,552.
"As with anything, if you win, people start taking interest," athletic director Daryl Gross said. "In Syracuse, we know we're the only show in town for about a 100-mile radius. People just look for something positive in their life, whether it's football or men's lacrosse. This is something people could be proud of."
When Gross came in as athletic director, he was surprised that his women's team played in Manley Field House instead of the spacious Carrier Dome, where the men's team has a substantial following. He made the huge arena the women's home as well, which helped in recruiting and showed how much room the program has to grow.
"The critics said it was going to be cavernous, that you're only going to have 50 people in there," Gross said. "My goal is to put 10,000 fans in there."
Gross said marketing efforts have included promotions such as "Daddy/Daughter Day" and other events designed to reach outside the limits of women's basketball fans.
"I don't know if it's always putting money into it. It's putting passion into it, taking it seriously," he said. "If you put the right energy into it, the money issue isn't as big a concern. The attitude is 'Let's get after it, let's be creative.' "
On Monday, Syracuse finishes its regular season against West Virginia, another program with remarkable growth in attendance. Of the 73 schools in the six major conferences, only nine have seen their home crowds increase by so much as 20 percent; West Virginia's has nearly tripled, from 965 to 2,536.
In 2000, there were only 13 women's basketball teams that averaged 5,000 fans; that number was up to 20 last season, though still well short of the more than 100 schools drawing that on the men's side.
Spreading the wealth
If powerhouses such as Connecticut are the rare economic model, the success story that all women's programs hope to be, they also may be part of the difficulty schools have in getting there.
Auriemma told the Times before this season that the parity coming to women's basketball may be something that helps the sport become profitable. As much as dynasties such as Tennessee and the Huskies have given exposure to their game, Auriemma said the sport needs the any-given-Sunday chaos of the NFL, where huge upsets can come on any field, even at the Super Bowl.
"Every Sunday, I don't care what your record is, you could lose," Auriemma said of the NFL's allure. "Every Sunday, each guy to a certain extent is playing for their job. They're unbelievable in the way they've set that up, and that's why it's probably the most popular sport in America right now.
"You're starting to see that fans want competition. They want to pay good money to see two teams go at it as hard as they can. …
"Now, you have more coaches recruiting harder. There's more to recruit to, because schools have provided them more resources. As a result, the game has grown by leaps and bounds, every year. Now, every year, somebody else is coming out and challenging the traditional powers."
Still, it may be a while before they see the payoff.
Greg Auman can be reached at (813) 226-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous installments, visit sports.tampabay.com and click on our Final Four link.