Casualties of Victory

The season is over and though the NCAA tournament showcased a number of interesting games and exciting upsets, the Final Four was anticlimactic. Connecticut polished off an undefeated season without being threatened. Tennessee last season, Connecticut this season – the dynasties just keep going. We are impressed…and a little depressed too.

Here we go again. Tennessee won the NCAA championship in 2007 and 2008. The 2009 champ, Connecticut, went undefeated and did not win a game by fewer than 10 points. Between the two of them, the Vols and the Huskies have won 7 of the past 10 NCAA championships (from 2000-2009). They have accounted for 14 of the 40 available Final Four spots over that span, generously leaving 26 for everyone else. That combined record is wonderful and terrible, laudable and discouraging, and most definitely too much of a good thing unless you are a Vol or Husky supporter. The two teams are raising the bar with excellence and choking the fun out of the proceedings at the same time.

The 2009 NCAA tournament featured some appealing early matchups and a number of stirring upsets, a few probably due to home court advantage for the underdog. Unfortunately for those who like a little uncertainty and excitement in their sporting events, the Connecticut title seemed almost preordained and the Final Four was anticlimactic. The Huskies had not won the championship since 2004 (they won three in a row in 2002, 2003, and 2004) so their triumph was not really another example of same old, same old, but it sure felt like it. Maybe the link to that other basketball behemoth, the Vols, made it feel that way. When one of them wins, does it really matter much to the rest of us which one it was? It is kind of like asking which brand of mallet you would choose to have smacked into your head.

This is very old news but once again there was no Tennessee/Connecticut game this season after Pat Summitt put the kibosh on the series in 2007. Last season Stanford rudely disrupted ESPN's plans for split-screen coach-cams and expert analysis of body language during a post-game handshake by bumping off Connecticut in the semi-final game of the NCAA tournament. This season Tennessee shockingly lost in the first round of the tournament to Ball State. That sort of Orange implosion probably won't happen again any time soon, so those who do not love dynasties better enjoy the moment now. The ESPN announcing team brought up the cancelation of the Tennessee/Connecticut series at the 2009 Final Four at least once (I tried not to listen too carefully). They even asked Tennessee coach Pat Summitt about it when she dropped by to offer a word or two about the Final Four games and allow ESPN to make sure we didn't forget about her for more than 37 seconds. The angst over the absence of this game has not abated very much in some quarters.

In the outcry over the cancellation of the series between the college basketball equivalents of charging rhinos amidst a group of wary hyenas, the desires of the "casual fans" were frequently invoked. What would they all do, these casual fans, without this marquee game to attract them? Wasn't it bad for women's basketball to give up this hook for the unconverted non-fans yearning for a familiar matchup they could understand? Well, the 2008 NCAA tournament ratings were up 41% on ESPN and 31% on ESPN2 through the Elite Eight games. The ratings for the final in 2008 were up 30%. Whether casually or intently, somebody was still watching. Maybe they were too casual to get the memo yet.

The picture changed in 2009. Ratings for the entire 2009 NCAA tournament were down approximately 15% on ESPN and ESPN2. The Final Four numbers were even worse; both semi-finals were down significantly compared to 2008 and the Connecticut/Louisville final was down by about 30%, reversing the upward spike of the previous year. You might conclude that fans prefer to watch Tennessee dominate rather than Connecticut but it is more likely that all the hype about Connecticut's undefeated dominance in 2009 was a drag on the Final Four ratings. Dominance is boring. Blowouts are boring. Why watch if you already know what will happen? The endless Connecticut hype was deserved (they were as good as advertised and played beautiful basketball) but deadly dull to both casual fans and devoted fans of other programs. I'll take a wild guess that generally fans want to see well-played, competitive games featuring teams and players with which they have some level of familiarity - familiarity with all the teams involved, not just one or two. The 2008 Final Four had all of those elements. The 2009 Final Four did not.

Casual fans by definition don't care all that much. How many of these highly sought casual fans might buy tickets to a local game after watching a game between national powers on television? How many will watch other televised games? How much effort should be expended to attract them, and how? How do you "grow" the game? We want the networks and advertisers to be happy, but not at the expense of the more-than-casual fans who are rolling their eyes at the repetitive, overblown coverage, which is often such a turn-off that some fans I will not name just can't enjoy the spectacle and tend to stubbornly do laundry instead in protest. If the networks are successful in getting casual fans to tune in by simply feeding them more of what they already know, what does that do for the other teams that these casual watchers don't know nearly so well (if at all)? The whole concept of needing the one big game or the draw of one or two particular teams seems like an ineffective trickle-down theory.

Although more exposure is obviously better, women's basketball doesn't need casual fans that pop in once or twice a year as much as the sport needs the smaller number of dedicated fans, the ones who actually go to games and watch many televised games regardless of the level of hype involved. They are the folks who count. Many want to see an annual "Clash of Titans." Many, including those who might want to watch, can't stand the way the matchup has been presented and wonder whether the oversized attention is just one more way for the basketball rich to get even richer - more exposure, more fans, more recruits. It is a cycle either beautiful or vicious, depending on your perspective. If the casual fan is willing to take a chance on other prime matchups, than offer them other interesting games to expand their horizons. If they are only willing to watch two teams, what use is that to anyone else? Better ratings for a very few key games might bring more money to the sport (or to a few teams – who gets that money anyway?) but if that is all it does, it is a dead end.

The best way to lure new fans and get them connected to the sport is to get them to follow a team, their team, and much better that team not be Tennessee or Connecticut, which already have legions of fans (because they win and because they get so much press and TV time that they are very easy to follow even from afar). The easiest way to build fan support is pretty well known and fairly simple (if not so easy to accomplish) - win. When a formerly downtrodden team starts winning, the fans follow, both in the stands and in front of the television (if their team gets to be on television). You build attendance by winning, offering entertaining basketball, creating a fun game atmosphere, and finagling enough media coverage to allow potential fans to learn about and follow the team. You create fans by building an emotional investment in the competition – you get them hooked. Usually that requires a little direct face time.

Budding fans may become fans of the sport or they may simply stay as fans of their team, but whatever they are, they are more important than the casual channel-flippers. Are there really many fans that are not attached to one particular team, who are just general fans of the sport? I don't know a soul without a predominant rooting interest in any sport they choose to follow. Some have more than one favorite team but all have teams they like and teams they don't. People have to care at least a little. I can watch Olympic curling if I sense that the moment is incredibly meaningful to the participants, but I can no longer watch many professional sports because I just don't care who wins. Those professional sports may be spectacular, but they leave me colder than the curling ice. I might drop in to watch a bit of the World Series, but I could take it or leave it even if the shortstop just made a fabulous play. I guess that makes me a (very) casual baseball fan. If so than attracting the women's basketball equivalent of "baseball-me" is probably a losing proposition. If I'm going to a Giants game, it's once a season for the garlic fries and beer in the sun. The casual fan that can be dispassionately courted into becoming a general women's basketball fan through televised games may not exist. The way into a sport is caring about a team and learning about that team, which means learning about opponents, the conference, and the national picture for "your" team. Knowledge does not only equal power, it equals fans who will go watch a nearby NCAA tournament game featuring teams from far away because those fans know enough to be interested and care enough to get off their duffs and go. TV watching doesn't really promote getting off one's duff.

Some decry what they term "Our Girls Syndrome," which is a perceived failing of women's college basketball fans because they supposedly follow their own teams but not the sport as a whole. I say don't dismiss those fans with unkind generalizations. They may well be on the road to becoming fans of the sport as a whole. Some will expand their interest and some won't, but let's be realistic; it is not nearly as easy to be a fan of women's basketball as it is of men's basketball. Information is sustenance to a fan. Fans become better fans as they gain knowledge, but fans of the men's game have a much better information base available to them. If one has the slightest curiosity at all, it is almost impossible not to learn about men's basketball just by reading the sports pages every day or flipping on SportsCenter. Consider too that many fans of other sports may be more knowledgeable and invested because they wager on games or participate in NCAA pools, NFL fantasy leagues, and other similar activities. Are there many WNBA fantasy leagues?

Criticizing fans that have passion for their own teams because those fans have not expanded their interest levels "enough" is counterproductive. Feed them instead. Give them good games, easy access to information about their team and others, a greater variety of teams at the top (maybe their team!), and their interest will grow naturally. I saw plenty of empty seats at the early round sites of the men's NCAA tournament. There must be an "Our Boys Syndrome" too. I'm making up numbers, but if 20 million people consider themselves to be serious fans and 5% of them are willing to travel to support their team and/or watch unfamiliar teams play in their area, that is one million people ready to fill up arenas during March Madness. If only one million people are serious fans and the same 5% will travel or watch "strange" teams locally, than you've only got 50,000 fans to fill up the same number of arenas and onlookers think there is something different about the fan base, when in reality it is simply a numbers issue.

Everyone knows that winning breeds fans. But why do we not often consider the corollary, that when Tennessee and Connecticut win all the time, get all the ink and love from the media, the fans that get all the fun (the joy of winning!) are the fans of those programs. Everybody else is left out too often. It's boring when the same teams are on top all the time, unless one of them is yours, of course. This is obviously not the fault of the winning programs. What they have accomplished is admirable and it is up to the other teams to knock them off. But that doesn't mean we can't hate it when Tennessee and Connecticut win again or when so many top recruits flock to the same few teams. Those lurking casual fans might find it fun to drop by and see if Pat and Geno give each other death stares, but many if not most of the fans of teams other than the Big Two are begging for someone, anyone else. We want new faces, new teams, new players to watch and enjoy when the season winds down and the games matter most.

Every year one benefit I gain from enjoying the NCAA tournament is that I get to know new teams. Some team that I never had occasion to see makes a run and I learn who they are, how they play, maybe a little about what their fortunes might be for the following year. Probably I'll keep a better eye on that team in the future, just because I'm a little curious. My knowledge grows and I am a better fan for it. I'm sure I'm not alone and that any time a lesser-known team hits the Elite Eight or the Final Four, many fans discover in them a new team to follow tangentially if not actively support. Multiple dynasties don't leave a lot of room for surprise Final Four contestants. Connecticut deserved their NCAA title and their fans deserved to enjoy the ride, but for most of the rest of us, the Connecticut/Tennessee dominance is like a movie series where the first few were great and the production continues to be top notch, but the thrill is very long gone. One dynasty may be a useful and fun measuring stick. Two is too many. Can't we vote one off the show?

Stanford almost certainly gained a few fans from their Final Four forays. The amount of press given to Final Four participants is staggering and has got to benefit any program fortunate enough to climb into that maelstrom. On a smaller scale, Stanford is on the other side of the equation in the Pac-10 where many fans want anybody else to win the conference title and the Card don't want to cede the top rung. What goes nationally goes for a conference. For the Pac-10 and western basketball to grow, we have to root for Cal, Arizona State, USC and the rest to knock us around some. It may occasionally be painful, but in the end, as long as the Cardinal keep up their end and other teams improve to meet them, it is the best medicine. The major caveat is that conference teams must win their non-conference games and improve their national standings for that scenario to benefit the group. It does no good if too many teams are not ready early in the season and lose out-of-conference games or if they play weak non-conference schedules and then count on knocking off the better teams in conference. None of this implies that Stanford fans should feel guilty about rooting for their team to continue dominating the conference or that Connecticut and Tennessee fans should feel bad that their teams keep winning those darned national titles. It is up to the field to catch the leaders and for the leaders to do all they can to stay well ahead, with their fans enjoying every dominant moment. What we root for as fans of one team and what we hope for the sport are not always perfectly compatible.

Whatever the scale of the triumph, women's basketball needs more teams and more fans to have their winning moments. Championships are too much fun not to share the wealth. The best way to grow the sport is to have greater diversity at the top nationally and in conferences. Stanford doesn't need a stronger Pac-10 to succeed on a national level. The Cardinal are doing just fine as it is even though most of the Pac-10 teams have underachieved in recent years. But if we want to avoid scenes like those NCAA first round games being played in Los Angeles in an almost empty arena, we have to hope that a variety of teams can find enough national success to hook more fans. Right now the sport is top heavy but with luck as time passes the growing pool of talent will disperse to more teams, and gradually parity will emerge. Every season there is talk of parity and if we are "there" yet. I think more competitive balance is creeping into the sport, maybe even fairly quickly, but there is a ways to go until it reaches the very top where it counts the most. To the degree that growth of the sport (which basically means better competitive balance and more fan support) depends on parity (or just call it diversity since it doesn't need to be perfect) we should be down on dynasties. Congratulations to Tennessee for that eighth title last season. Congratulations to Connecticut for that undefeated season this year. It was a remarkable achievement and a real shame, both at the same time. I'd like to see those two teams play, but I'm glad they're not.

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