As Tampa prepares to host its third NCAA Women’s Final Four since 2008, the impact of the game’s most visible weekend has barely registered with local athletes. Only two Tampa Bay women have played in the Final Four since its inception in 1982, and despite the exposure, the high school and club programs in the area continue to lag far behind the nation. Why hasn’t girls basketball risen in the Sunshine State? We convene the Roundtable to search for answers.
Too many other options
Matt Baker, State colleges reporter @MattBakerTBTimes: While we’re focusing on females because of the Women’s Final four, this isn’t a great hoops state for males, either. Basketball simply isn’t a big deal here, says the guy born and raised in Indiana. Because it’s not a big deal here, many of our top male and female athletes who could be great basketball players pursue other sports. For the boys, that’s football and baseball. For the girls, that’s soccer and softball. The fact that the weather allows us to play those sports year-round helps, too and hurts basketball (which is a great sport to play inside when it’s 20 degrees out).
Sunny days keeping them away
Joey Knight, USF and colleges reporter @TBTimes_Bulls: For once in my life, I concur with Matt Baker -- it’s a climate issue. Our favorable year-round weather is conducive to excellence in softball, soccer, golf, tennis and several other endeavors. In the age of sports specialization, any of those sports can be played year-round. From a school-budget perspective, I can authoritatively say hoops isn’t prioritized on nearly the scale that it might be in other states. My younger daughter played two years of middle school basketball in Pasco County. The season began around Thanksgiving and ended before Christmas break. I think in Tennessee, that’s called the preseason.
Keep the stars home
Bob Putnam, @bobbyhomteam: Newcomers in any sport dream of playing for a championship contender at the highest level. Trouble is, no college program from Florida has ever made the women’s Final Four. And there is not a WNBA franchise in the state. Without much television exposure, interest wanes. The few who become standouts in high school do not stick around either. In the last five years, only one of the 12 players from Florida rated as a five-star recruit signed with a state school. The only two locals to ever make the women’s Final Four — Necole Tunsil (Lakewood/Iowa) and Dominique Redding (Clearwater/Tennessee) — did it elsewhere. Redding said most girls in Tennessee, especially around Knoxville, start playing at an early age because they grow up wanting to play for the Volunteers. That will not happen here until more homegrown stars stay and state schools start making it to the FInal Four.
Rodney Page, @rodneyhometeam: Let me throw a wrench into the argument that it is a climate issue. In this year’s FHSAA girls state basketball tournament, six of the nine classifications had a Miami/Fort Lauderdale area team in the final. Lots of beaches in south Florida. I think it’s the programs. Whatever they are doing in Broward/Dade counties is producing not only state champions (Miami Country Day is ranked first nationally) but several Division I players. Granted, there are more people down there, but Tampa/St. Petersburg isn’t tiny. Create more programs, start kids earlier and make it affordable. And copy whatever they are doing down south.
Amp up the adulation
Ernest Hooper, columnist/assistant sports editor @hoop4you: A lack of youth development, certainly fostered by a dearth of quality programs, stands as an issue. However, it’s time for girls basketball — and other girls sports — to receive an infusion of attention and adulation. Too often, the female side of youth sports gets treated like solely as a Title IX requirement. How can we amp the athletic aspirations of girls if we don’t recognize those who have thrived. Organizers need to do more than check the box, and it can start with celebrating those who have succeeded at the game’s highest level. If we have kids who have never heard of Dominique Redding, Necole Tunsil, Sherisha Hills or Katrina Colleton, that’s a problem.