Sports Take: Women’s basketball should use neutral sites for opening rounds

Baylor women's basketball took on University of Hawaii on March 18 at the Ferrell Center for the first round of the NCAA tournament instead of at a neutral site. Grace Everett | Photographer

By Joe Pratt | Broadcast Reporter

For the first time in NCAA women’s basketball history, March Madness is being displayed on the courts throughout the tournament. In an attempt to expand its viewership and attraction for fans, both the men and women’s tournaments now receive equal branding. Those who attended the first two rounds of women’s March Madness here in Waco would’ve noticed the new logo posted up around the building, on the big screen and on the floor.

Efforts to make the women’s tournament up to par with the men’s started during last year’s social media outbreak. Fans and players took to various social media outlets to voice their opinions regarding the steep drop off in marketing between the men and women. Baylor women’s basketball head coach Nicki Collen gave her thoughts on the NCAA’s changes made ahead of the 2022 tournament.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that last year was an eye-opener, and it’s probably the beauty of social media,” Collen said. “There’s a lot of negatives with social media, but I think what this started is good for women’s basketball and started a narrative about how valuable the women’s tournament is for the NCAA and how it should be treated as such.”

Last week, the women’s tournament broke its previous attendance record from 2004. Over the 32-game stretch, 216,890 fans came out to support their squads across the country hosted by the top 16 seeds. Several of these contests proved to be upsets much like No. 10 seed University of South Dakota’s 61-47 triumph over No. 2 seed Baylor on Sunday, knocking the Bears out of the tournament on their home floor.

“I thought it was just a great atmosphere for women’s basketball,” South Dakota women’s basketball head coach Dawn Plitzuweit said. “So to all the fans, our Coyote fans and the Baylor fans, I thought you made this a really special environment for the student-athletes to play in, so thank you for that.”

Attendance improvements arise in the midst of another dispute – moving these first two rounds to neutral sites, like the men. The previous crowd record set in 2004 was broken at pre-selected, or neutral sites. There has been buzz around this year’s tournament involving the idea of moving back to neutral sites. However, Collen believes that the players should be prioritized in this careful process.

“I think we have to be clever about it, I don’t think we want to take away from the athlete,” Collen said. “The one thing I don’t want to see our game do is go to neutral sites and not play in front of everyone. I would want to know that we have a plan for how to put people in the stands at neutral site games.”

I think that neutral sites are necessary for women’s March Madness. If the NCAA and women’s basketball are trying to place themselves on the same level as men’s basketball, they need to make each tournament almost identical. Scheduling should be adjusted to limit conflicts between games so that broadcasts may be more consistently viewed.

The first rounds are evidence that home-court advantage is not as much of an advantage as once thought. While the University of Iowa and Creighton University played in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena, just 36% of the Ferrell Center’s seats were occupied for Sunday’s South Dakota-Baylor game. Each game resulted with the ten seeds upsetting the two seeds, regardless of the hosts playing in front of a home crowd.

“We just lost, and I do think it would cause more upsets, but I also would want to know that the student-athlete experience was going to be really, really good too, and that they were going to be creative in finding ways to fill the stands,” Collen said.

Traveling fan bases makes March Madness more of an experience rather than just a game. More hype is built when two teams enter a foreign territory to compete on a level playing field. But loading up the buildings is key for all kinds of viewership and for the fans. Collen said she would rather play in front of 10,000 people screaming against her than in an arena with just 500 fans cheering for her.

Shifting the games to neutral sites also shifts women’s basketball to a more even playing field with the men. With more women’s games being broadcasted on ESPN and the sport’s growth in the past five to 10 years, moving the first two rounds of March Madness to neutral sites should be the next step for the NCAA in bringing equity to women’s basketball.