Two years before the Women's Final Four brings college basketball to Tampa, the sport's leaders are taking a step back and asking if changes — to nearly any aspect of their game — can create a spark.
"I recommend … to approve and initiate a package of innovative and progressive changes … in an effort to capture (or re-capture) the imagination of fans, sponsors and the media," former WNBA president Val Ackerman wrote in a 52-page white paper released this month.
The NCAA hired Ackerman in November to assess the state of the game. She spent six months interviewing coaches, college presidents, athletic directors and other advocates of the game.
The NCAA women's basketball committee is set to meet this week to determine which, if any, of the recommendations it will implement.
Basketball is competing for attention with other women's sports. A recent study showed about 7.1 million U.S. girls ages 8-17 participate in basketball, just ahead of soccer (7 million) and volleyball (6.5 million).
"We need to reclaim basketball as a first option for young girls," Ackerman wrote.
Her recommendations run the gamut from rules changes — shortening the shot clock to 24 seconds, playing four 10-minute quarters instead of two halves and lowering the rim — to structural changes to the NCAA Tournament, which has had attendance issues at neutral sites in early rounds.
Ackerman pointed to downward statistical trends in the game. Overall, shooting is down from 44.2 percent in 1985-86 to 38.9 percent this past season, and 3-point shooting hit an all-time low at 30.6 percent.
Attendance, too, is down. In 1999-2000, five programs averaged 10,000-plus fans at home games. But this past season, only Tennessee did so. Ackerman also cited a 2011 study commissioned by the NCAA that showed 53 percent of women's basketball fans were 50 or older.
The sport's leaders seem willing to re-examine any aspect of the current structure, including the format and timing of the season. The season currently runs parallel to the men's. It could be shifted to a January-April model (or even to the fall) to move out of the men's shadow.
Ackerman also studied moving the tournament's first and second rounds to the campuses of the top 16 seeds, which would help attendance but likely add to the elite programs' dominance.
"You get into attendance vs. upsets," said USF coach Jose Fernandez, who is active in national coaches' associations. "I like the idea of keeping regionals in the same sites for two or three years so you develop some fan bases there. If you're going to play on home floors, how many upsets are you going to have?"
Ackerman also looked at decreasing a team's scholarships from 15 to 13, hoping to lessen the gap between the perennial powerhouses and rest of the nation.
"I think that could maybe spread the wealth," said Fernandez, adding coaches have long considered adding measures already in the men's game such as a 10-second backcourt call and five-second closely guarded rule.
Ackerman also suggested eight-team regions at two sites for the second weekend of the tournament and holding the Final Four at a permanent home, like baseball in Omaha, Neb., and softball in Oklahoma City.
Such changes could take a few years to implement, but a smaller measure that could be in place by Tampa in 2015 is shifting the Final Four games from their current Sunday-Tuesday model — the day after the corresponding men's games — to Friday-Sunday. That would allow the games to be more of a weekend event.
Ackerman's report has started a conversation, which coaches hope is a first step toward changes that can improve women's basketball.
"We need a jump-start for our sport right now," Beth Bass, chief executive officer of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, told the Associated Press. "There will be some components that will be a lightning rod for discussions by our membership."
Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, said he has not received a request from the NCAA committee concerning a date change for the Final Four.
"However, based off some of the recent published reports," he said, "we've begun looking at the feasibility on our end so that we can provide an expeditious answer if we're asked."
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.