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NCAA Women’s Tourney Slow to Gain Audience

April 5, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Last night’s NCAA championship had all the makings of a classic, complete with a come-from-behind big finish in overtime. But this time, it was the women who provided the last-minute thrills.

The Duke Blue Devils were running away with it, leading by as many as 13 points. And then the Maryland Terrapins staged a dramatic comeback. With less than a minute to play, they needed one shot to tie the game.

ANNOUNCER: They’ve got to go for three now. Tolliver looking for three. She fires. Got it! Holy cow, what a shot! Harding back the other way, got it off.

(BUZZER)

We’re going to overtime!

GWEN IFILL: Maryland won its first-ever national women’s title last night. But 25 years after the NCAA women’s tournament began, the women are still an asterisk in March’s madness, trailing men’s programs in attendance, revenue and television coverage. Will games like last night’s begin to change all that?

For more on the history and the future of women’s basketball, we turn to sportswriter Susan Shackelford. She’s co-author of the book, “Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball.”

Welcome, Ms. Shackelford.

SUSAN SHACKELFORD, Co-author, “Shattering the Glass”: Hi, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you were at the game in Boston last night. Did you begin to see the turning of a page?

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: Well, I did. I mean, I think that the game has actually has been turning pages for a while now. It was just dramatically showcased last night by that Maryland team. They have so much talent, and it was such an exciting finish against an excellent Duke team.

GWEN IFILL: Was a team like the Maryland team allowed to happen because women’s basketball in general has matured?

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: I think so, because that Maryland team has all underclassmen, not a single senior on the team. And they start two freshmen, two sophomores, and a junior.

And what I think that’s the result of, Gwen, is the increasing talent that we’re seeing coming out of high school. These players are better and better every year, so these freshmen can step right up and do something really dramatic, like Kristi Tolliver did and hit that three to send it into overtime.

GWEN IFILL: But this isn’t the first time, or certainly this isn’t new that women are playing basketball. What’s changing now? Is the sport changing or is just the environment in which it operates changing?

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: Well, I think that the cultural acceptance of women playing sports is growing. You know, it has grown over the last 30 years; it actually needs to continue to grow.

And that’s why you are seeing just what you talked about earlier, with revenues lagging and support lagging behind the men. The women really got a much later start than the men, in terms of emphasis. It wasn’t really until Title IX that the women got a real shot in the arm and the women’s college program started developing.

GWEN IFILL: Does that mean that the playing field — to use a sports metaphor, naturally — that the playing field is leveling between men’s and women’s sports?

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: Well, I think it is, in terms of excitement and quality. I think that both games have that. And that’s something that fans can really enjoy, just like they did last night.

And that game last night was the top game in the Final Four, men or women, which you alluded to in the opening. And I was there. And that arena was rocking. I mean, it didn’t matter who was down there playing. It was just that it was exciting; people absolutely loved it.

GWEN IFILL: In the men’s game, we’ve seen in the past several years a lot of players go from college, even from high school, straight into the pros. Today we had the WNBA draft. Is that what women players do, as well?

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: No, they don’t. They stay their college years because the income that they can pull from pro sports is not anything like the men.

The top men pull millions, which will set them for life if they handle their money well. And with the women, they come out and they’ll make somewhere between $30,000 and $80,000, maybe not even $80,000, in the WNBA for playing three months worth of ball.

And so it’s just not there yet to make it worth it for those women to jump from college to the pros. And while I think that will happen some day, it’s a real benefit to the fans to have these women on these teams playing together for four years, because you see quality basketball and lots of teamwork.

GWEN IFILL: It used to be, though, when you watched women’s basketball at all, you saw Connecticut or Tennessee, Tennessee or Connecticut. And they were the dynasties in the sport. Now we’re seeing something a little bit different?

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: That’s right. We’re seeing much more of a broadening of the game. And, again, it goes back to that talent factor that I mentioned earlier.

You know, women have now been playing and having a sense that they can play from the beginning of their school days all the way to college. And when they can do that, they develop skills at a very high level. And then, when they hit college, you know, there’s a lot of opportunity. And there’s so many colleges with programs, so many kids playing, that you’re just seeing a result of opportunity coming to the forefront.

GWEN IFILL: What about television exposure? We saw this was on ESPN last night — not like one of the big networks of the men, of course — but is that growing or is that shrinking?

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: It’s growing. ESPN has continued to add games and coverage every year. They cover every game of the women’s playoffs, and that’s a terrific asset to the game at this point.

And they really commit dollars, and they’re very committed to growing the game through TV exposure, which is very important. The game needs that, because a lot of people don’t realize that women are playing the sport at this level, because they just tune in to last night’s game and they see one great game. Well, they might not see any more until next year this time.

And the more the games can get on during the season and in the lead-up to the Final Four, the more support the game will get.

GWEN IFILL: Last night, I read there were 18,600 people at that championship final. But Maryland, the winner, generally has an average of about 5,000 people at a game during the regular season. Is there a way or is there any sign that that fan base is expanding?

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: I think it’s expanding, but it’s very gradual, and it’s very frustrating. And it’s hard to understand why people don’t come out during the season.

I think part of it is a product of the — let me see if I can get the right perspective on it. I think it’s a marketing issue and figuring out how to market it.

I think that too many of these teams are in conferences where the men’s programs are extremely strong, which is wonderful, but they tend to overshadow the women’s programs because they already have built-in fan bases and people watch those men’s games a couple nights a week.

And, you know, how many nights do you have to watch it? You know, you can’t watch basketball every night and have a life. So the women are competing, Gwen, with the men in the sense for people’s time.

So the women are really playing catch-up, because the men really dug in and developed their game after World War II in sync with television’s rise. And around that same time, the women’s program practically died across this country, because our culture really did not like women playing basketball, by and large. There were only a few places that kept it going, and then Title IX revived it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, go Lady Terps.

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Shackelford, thank you very much.

SUSAN SHACKELFORD: You’re welcome.