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The Ackerman White Paper, Part I: Concerns about college women's basketball

Former WNBA president Val Ackerman's "White Paper" was released today in collaboration with the NCAA. The paper is both a set of concerns and problems the college women's basketball game is facing, and it includes a set of recommendations for improvement.


The Val Ackerman white paper on college basketball was released today. This paper was mentioned in an earlier article at Swish Appeal, but the contents of the paper were not known then.

Ackerman spoke with the heavy hitters of women's basketball - not just coaches, but college presidents, conference commissioners, and others involved at the highest levels of the game. The 52-page final paper is daunting. It's an excellent read for anyone who is interested in the fate of women's college basketball, and this is a must read.

I've only read the first section so far. What follows below are some of the points that I thought were interesting.

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* Division I regular season and NCAA tournament games attract more fans and viewers than any other women's intercollegiate sport. In 2013, the Women's Final four was seen by 2.3 million domestic viewers.

* Women's college basketball's overall growth has slowed over the last decade. We're not going backwards or losing viewers, but growth is plateauing.

* The number of programs that have achieved competitive success nationally is small - there's a lack of parity in the women's game. Of the 343 DI schools, only 25 have made at least one Final Four appearance. She writes that "7 schools have 40 combined appearances among them", but I don't know where her data is coming from. Tennessee, Connecticut and Stanford alone have 43 total Final Four appearances. There are actually 37 schools since 1982 that have made at least one Final Four. Even so, I agree there is a real lack of parity in the women's game.

* Demographics of women's college basketball attendance:

Females outnumber males 56 percent to 44 percent.
53 percent are 50 and older. If you look at the over-50s, 30 percent are 60 and over.
71 percent are white.
53 percent have completed college/graduate school.
70 percent earn less than $75K/year

* On both ESPN and ESPN2, the demographic of regular season women's basketball viewers is men age 55 and over.

* In 1985-86, field goal percentage in women's basketball for DI was 44.2 percent, its highest level. After that, it began to progressively drop over the last 20 years. During 2012-13, the average field goal percentage was 38.9 percent.

The same progressions have happened with 3-point shooting and total points scored. However, free throw shooting has increased and turnovers have decreased.

* Of the major movers and shakers that Val Ackerman interviewed, their concerns fell into five major categories:

1. A desire for some sort of clear vision for the game to be set.
2. A desire to overhaul the governance and decision-making structures of the sport.
3. A concern about the game's quality. According to Ackerman, her respondents complained about the "excessive physicality", "low scoring", "wide gaps in parity". They also felt that the overall image of the sport was negative.
4. A desire for increased in-game attendance and revenues.
5. A desire to make sure that the demands of the sport on the players are in-line with educational priorities.

* Money quotes from respondents:

"We have to get away from doing things just because the men do them."

"What's right for the men isn't necessarily what's right for the women."

"No one would stay committed to the sport without Title IX."

"Bring us back to why we fell in love with this sport 30 years ago."

"We've created a subspecies of compliance, governance, and committees that paralyzes us."

Game is "too physical" - "excessive contact is hurting the game".

"Strength training coach is the most important person on the staff."

"Embarrassing how few teams legitimately compete on a high level."

Male practice players make women's players "try to play like guys, so they practice physical basketball" which is hurting the game.

"Baggy shorts and tattoos turn fans off."

Uniforms need to be "fashionable, hip, cool".

Volleyball is seen as a "growing threat" for young players and athletic department dollars - may be prospering "because not laboring under comparisons with men".

Coaching contracts "are not supported by the revenues".

Coaches need to be "cheerleaders, not introverts". With Pat Summitt gone there is a "vacuum", new coaches need to "capture the imagination of fans". The backbone for enthusiasm in the local market is the coach, since players come and go.

Need to "educate students about the big picture" so they understand their role in the sales effort.

NCAA website is "awful".

Not enough collaboration between college programs and WNBA teams in the same cities.

There are "high levels of depression" among players because of the stress.

The best players need more media and speaking training.

* Weaknesses of the game (the strengths are also mentioned elsewhere)

The game has to compete with men's college basketball, college, pro football and the NBA.

Scheduling the men's and women's tournaments at the same time is obscuring the visibility of the women's game.

The lack of parity hurts the game's overall appeal. Contributing factors to this lack of parity:

a) More scholarships given out than a team actually needs to be competitive - players which would be good players at other schools decide to be bench-warmers at the small number of top programs.

b) The lack of quality coaching depth.

c) Too much physicality in the sport, which favors the programs with the biggest and strongest players.

d) The lack of skill level in incoming freshmen and JUCOs, due to a lack of development.

Revenue is based mainly on ticket sales, an unsustainable financial base.

The concerns about complying with gender equity has led to an escalation of costs to match the men's programs.

One D1 representative said that at his/her school, the women's basketball coach's salary was 60 percent of the sport's total revenue, that assistant women's basketball coaches at that school make more than head coaches in other sports, and that women's basketball loses the most money at that school.

The fan base is too gray - too dependent on fixed incomes, which limits increasing ticket prices, which limits revenue streams.

The women's basketball fans that watch on TV are majority male, the women's basketball fans attending games are majority female - they need different marketing strategies.

The Tennessee/Connecticut rivalry - an instrumental one - is damaged. The schools don't look like they'll be playing each other soon, and Pat Summitt has retired. Who will replace both her and Auriemma, when he retires? Who will fill the role that they fill?

The NCAA needs a stand-alone sponsor for women's basketball.

The Play 4Kay breast cancer awareness program/pink days are universally lauded. There needs to be an additional "cause marketing" campaign with a more upbeat theme and younger demographic.

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That's a lot to take in in twenty-five pages or so. A part two will follow. But don't wait for me to tell you what's in the rest of the paper. Like I wrote, it's a must read.