NEW YORK (AP) — College women's basketball is exploring ways to change the format of the NCAA Tournament, including moving the Final Four back a week to avoid overlap with the end of the men's tournament.
In a survey given to the conferences and obtained by The Associated Press, the women's basketball oversight committee laid out a few potential changes that wouldn't take place until 2019 at the earliest. The date change would put the women's Final Four on the same weekend as the Masters.
The committee is asking the schools and conferences for feedback on several alterations, including having the opening round at 32 sites and having the second round and regionals played at the same location. Moving the Final Four would add a bye week to the tournament schedule.
"The survey has a variety of implications," NCAA vice president for women's basketball Anucha Browne said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It's an opportunity to see if the current format is where we should stay or look into doing something different. We want to talk to the practitioners on campus — the senior women's associates, the coaches, we hope there is some feedback from the student athletes. Student athlete input is pretty important."
The surveys are due on Dec. 2, and oversight committee chairwoman Jean Lenti Ponsetto, who is the athletic director at DePaul, said it would take a while to digest the information.
"For sure it's going to take us a couple meetings to work through all the details without having a good idea what the results are going to look like," she said.
Browne and Ponsetto both stressed that it would be nearly impossible for anything to change in the immediate future because regional sites and Final Four locations are already locked in through 2018, including with a new Friday-Sunday setup for the Final Four beginning in 2017.
"I think there seems to be a perspective in membership that we need to do something in women's basketball. The championship isn't broken and women's basketball is in a good place," Browne said. "We want to deliver a strong crowd and going to a Friday-Sunday format this year will be an opportunity to see how that plays out."
Shifting the entire tournament back to avoid a bye week wasn't discussed on the survey. That's not a proposition that coaches would enjoy. Some don't even want to move the Final Four back a week.
"I like playing the following weekend," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of the current format. "At the same time, I see what we're trying to do. What's best for women's basketball for attendance? That's my only issue with that move. It's a big break. That would be the biggest break in the entire season, including Christmas. We don't have a break that long at any time when the season starts up. It would be something completely different."
Expanding to 32 teams hosting in the first round would potentially help expand the women's basketball fan base by allowing more schools to have tournament games on campus.
"If you're right on that bubble line, that's a great opportunity to host games," Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference commissioner Rich Ensor said. "That's a good way of growing the game."
The downside of having 32 first-round sites would be the travel cost. Those are a big reason why the women's NCAA Tournament is operating at a deficit, according to Browne.
"It's the highest revenue producing sport for women. If you take travel out of it, it's doing extremely well," Browne said.
The women's tournament travel party, including the band and cheerleaders, is the same size as that of the men's NCAA Tournament. The NCAA is estimating based on the survey that going to 32 first-round sites and the revised regional format would increase costs between $1.2-1.4 million.
ESPN, which broadcasts the NCAA Tournament, was opposed to most of the changes in the survey because of costs and feasibility.
"Our research has shown that moving the NCAA women's Final Four to Masters weekend would negatively impact ratings, and would cause a loss of the cross-promotional benefits of the men's Final Four," said Carol Stiff, ESPN's vice president of women's sports programming.
According to the survey, ESPN estimates that viewership could drop 30 percent if the Final Four is moved back. The network, which has been the exclusive home to the championship since 1996, also was against the idea of having 32 first-round sites.
"With the bracket being released on selection Monday, we expressed to the NCAA that it would be extremely challenging, if not impossible, for us to secure all the necessary resources in such a short time frame if the first-round games were expanded to 32 sites," Stiff said.
Most of the ideas were originally discussed in a "White Paper" put together by Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman in 2013 on the state of women's basketball.
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