The NCAA “bubbles” for its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were set to block the threat of a tournament derailed by COVID-19. For women, however, there is a curious side effect: this is the first time that all games have been played on a neutral site.
That is not new to men. (Although those neutral sites are generally spread out across the country for the first few rounds, rather than one giant site for the entire tournament, as is the case this year.) But it’s different for women, who typically play the first and second rounds on the seeded home courts, before switching to four regional sites for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight and then converging on one city for the Final Four. Which means this year’s experience stands out and raises a question: Is there a way to make more neutral sites work for the women’s tournament?
“I’ve always believed that the national tournament should be played in neutral venues,” says Iowa coach Lisa Bluder. “I had the benefit of hosting the first and second rounds; in fact, we broke the NCAA record for most attendance in the first and second rounds with over 23,000 people (in 2019). I know the benefit of that. But I don’t think it’s fair … I think what we’re seeing now is that it can be done. “
The NCAA attempted to use a variation on the neutral sites for the first two rounds of the women’s tournament from 2003 to 2014 (the sites were selected in advance, but there was no rule preventing the group from assigning a team to play at home, yes their stadium turned out to be one of those “neutral” sites, which is different from men, who are forbidden to play at home, even if their stadium has been selected as the venue). With the assistance of some of the neutral arenas, the women’s tournament scrapped that model and went with the current system, where the highest seeded hosts the first rounds.
Playing neutral venues would theoretically make the first few rounds more fair, eliminating home court advantage and fostering the idea that any team, no matter how low ranked, can win. But it would require enough fan participation to work.
“I think a lot depends on whether the fan interest is great enough to be worth doing,” says UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “If I could guarantee it, if I could say, Hey, listen, if you have these things on neutral sites, the fans will show up, I totally agree, and I think it would be great for the game … The big question I think everyone has is: can you do it? “
In the past, the answer seemed to be no.
“We’ve tried,” says Baylor coach Kim Mulkey of trying a tournament that incorporates more games at neutral venues. “And nobody shows up to the games.”
But the fanaticism of women’s basketball is growing, this is the first year that all the matches of the tournament are televised nationally, and the fact that a neutral site model could not be sustained in 2014 does not guarantee that the situation will be like this forever. . And this year’s tournament is sparking some interest in a different model that could take advantage of the existing fandom and help it grow even more: choosing a neutral site for the tournament that starts with the Sweet 16, rather than the Final Four, like what does now. .
Commentator Debbie Antonelli has advocated for this model for more than a decade. She calls her idea “Sweet 16 to Vegas”: The opening rounds could be played like now, on the local seeded courts, but the entire tournament would move to a destination city like Las Vegas for the Sweet 16. It is “For the amateur as well as for the competition of student-athletes and coaches,” he says.
“All I have suggested is thinking of the fan,” says Antonelli. “So on Christmas morning, if you want to give your family a hotel and a plane ticket and tickets to a game, you really know where your team would go. Right now, you have to wait until Selection Monday, and then they have to win the first two games, and then you have to see if you can really join your team at Sweet 16. “
In a normal, non-pandemic year, the four regional sites that host Sweet 16 and Elite Eight tend to lean toward the top seed locations. “I don’t think it’s fair on Sweet 16 to play regionals that are in someone’s backyard where they don’t have to travel a lot,” says the Iowa Bluder coach. This Antonelli idea would eliminate that dynamic and give women’s basketball a chance to have a place, year after year, to market to fans as their own.
She compares that to the College World Series, which has the best teams from across the country hosting early rounds of the tournament before the final eight meet in Omaha, or the Women’s College World Series, which does the same with Oklahoma City. In both cases, the city has developed a solid reputation as the home of the sport, with fans making annual pilgrimages to watch.
What that fan relationship with women’s basketball might look like in Las Vegas, or any other city, is an open question. But can the underlying structural piece work to house all the teams in one place before the Final Four? – has been answered this year in San Antonio.
“I go back to the Debbie Antonelli idea,” says Bluder, who liked the idea of completely neutral sites from the beginning, but would also embrace this model. “We could be playing a Sweet 16 in one place on a neutral site. We are seeing it right now. And it’s working. “
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.