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Why should women’s basketball supporters care about the WBI tournament?

While watching the NIT over dinner with a friend last night, we started talking about how pointless it would be to expand the NCAA men's basketball tournament - not only would it water down the whole experience, but it would virtually destroy the NIT.

During the brief conversation, we also found that neither of us has ever watched or followed the "other" tournaments: the CBI or CIT.

So why then should anyone care about the new Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI), a tournament that offers 3 seeds to teams like the University of Washington, a 12-17 team that just lost to last place Oregon State University in the Pac-10 tournament?

In describing the value of the tournament in an article yesterday, Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans described an "equality factor" in creating the tournament: not only does the tournament give more women's basketball programs an opportunity to play post-season basketball and offer the opportunity to profit from doing so, but it is also more fair than the WNIT.

"Last year when I wasn't coaching I did a number of things - I was a broadcaster for Fox, but the other thing I did was I was a consultant for Sports Tours International and they run tournaments all over the world," said Seattle University coach Joan Bonvicini, who was "partly the brainchild" of the tournament according to organizers. "I had a tough job - I was in the Bahamas, in Cancun, places like that. One of the things I noticed once I was there is that there was the NIT for women and the men have the CBI and Insiders and I felt there should be more opportunities for women. So I told them, ‘I think we should run a tournament and in the NIT it's like the highest bid gets the home game; we're going to do it fair.'"

Bret Seymour of Sports Tours International, the company organizing the tournament, said that in addition to the transparency that comes from being a pre-determined, 16 team field with higher seeds hosting - which the WNIT is not - the tournament cedes control to those host institutions. With control not only comes control of the venue, but control of the profit.

"I think it is nice for teams to 'control' the management of the games," said Seymour. "They have professional event management people to do this. They know how to run games. They don't need us telling them how to do it. Most importantly, they get to keep all revenues for the game-unlike the WNIT where there is revenue sharing. We don't set ticket prices, we don't tell teams what to do with students, we don't charge radio rights fees, we don't charge fees for parking, or live streaming video. We take no cut off any profit made by a University. If they want to let everyone in free, I say go for it. This is a fresh, 180 degree difference in philosophy."

However, there is even more to the tournament than control, equality, transparency, and profit, all - especially the latter - certainly attractive selling points to participating institutions. The tournament might better represent the concept of equity - it's not just about women's basketball getting closer to having the same number of opportunities to participate in the post-season, but actually providing women's basketball programs an opportunity to develop, as described by Washington coach Tia Jackson.

Huskies | Washington accepts bid to Women's Basketball Invitational | Seattle Times Newspaper
"There's some new life put in us," said the Huskies' Tia Jackson, who is making her first postseason appearance as coach. "I don't know that we've gotten over the Oregon State game. It kind of sits in our stomach a little bit, and it should.

"This reminds me of our men, when they were invited to the CBI (in 2008). They got an opportunity to extend their season. They might not have gotten what they wanted out of the tournament, but the next two years, they're Pac-10 champions. You want your players, especially the young ones, to experience it."

"Having as many postseason opportunities for women's basketball is a good thing," said Seymour. "There are so many good teams out there that deserve postseason attention."

As evidenced by the comments in Evans' Seattle Times posts about the WBI, the very notion that 12-17 Washington is one of those "good teams" that deserves post-season is debatable. However, Jackson's point about the value of the tournament might be a valid one: this is good for basketball because giving players the opportunity to experience the post-season - any post-season - is a valuable experience that helps teams grow. Increasing the opportunities for growth can only be good for women's basketball.

In an environment in which people have spent more time deriding women's basketball for being unbalanced as UConn looks to continue its winning streak, even relatively small opportunities like this that help teams develop should be embraced. In a sense, it will help support the developmental trajectory of a game that people sometimes forget is still very young.

UConn Prepares for Historic Trip
The men’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournament began in 1939; the women did not have one until 1982 — a decade after the passage of the gender-equity legislation known as Title IX. This year’s women’s N.C.A.A. tournament will be its 29th. The 29th men’s tournament occurred in 1967 — as the U.C.L.A. dynasty kicked into full swing with Lew Alcindor, nowKareem Abdul-Jabbar, consummating a 30-0 season and winning the first of what would become seven consecutive titles for the Bruins.

Essentially, there is zero difference in the trajectory of men’s and women’s college basketball. The women’s game is still in its comparative infancy. Dominant champions are predictable and necessary, just as they were for the men. If anything, it is more difficult for the UConn women to win titles now than it was for Alcindor and Bill Walton at U.C.L.A. decades ago.

Given the difference in where the women's game is relative to the men's game, the WBI has different meaning to women's basketball than the CBI and CTI have to men's basketball.

It's hard to dispute that with more tournaments the stakes increase, especially when there is profit involved. If it seems like STI sees themselves as competitors rather than subordinates to the WNIT, they do - it is their goal to get the next 16 teams that don't make the NCAA tournament. But that competitive spirit goes in both directions.

"We are certainly competing with the WNIT for teams," said Seymour. "We certainly aren't ‘conceding' the next 64 teams to the WNIT. Little background here-the WNIT was a 48 team event last year. We announce our 16 team field-about 3 weeks later the WNIT "expands" their field 16 teams to the current 64."

Of course there will be teams like USC - which felt they deserved a NCAA tournament bid - who feel like accepting a bid to a second-tier tournament is inadequate.

"I understand some hesitancy with the "newness" of our event," said Seymour. "However, Sport Tours International has been running women's college tournaments and taking teams on foreign trips for over 25 years. We were doing this before anyone else even thought it. The WBI is just a portion of what Sport Tours International does. Heck, we had Baylor, Texas A&M, Arizona State and Gonzaga in our Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic in December. It was widely hailed as the best non-conference women's hoops tournament in America. Do people on the "inside"-the college coaches-know the WBI? We hope. Do they know Sport Tours International, what we do and do well? Absolutely."

Related Links:

Postseason Time: Washington & Portland To Square Off In WBI(3/16 at 6pm at Bank of America Arena)

The 16-team WBI field

Cal State Bakersfield Hoping for Post-Season Bid with New WBI Tournament

Sport Tours Names WBI Advisory Committee - 12/3/2009