Indianapolis, IN -- It's yet to be seen whether or not the visionaries at the NCAA, who shook things up in women's basketball this season, will go down as icons for revolutionizing the sport -- but they are on the right track. Top to bottom, they've improved everything from the way the game is played to the strategies they are using to market it.
The overhaul began with several rules changes enacted by the NCAA Women's Basketball Rules Committee with the support of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association Board of Directors. Reacting to the feeling of reaching a plateau in recent years, the committee did away with the antiquated 20-minute halves in exchange for 10-minute quarters.
It cast aside the one-and-one foul shot attempts to award two free throws for each foul beyond the fifth team foul in a period, with the fouls resetting at the beginning of each period. However, the final change may be the most drastic as it encourages additional opportunities in close games, allowing teams to call a timeout with under a minute left in a game or overtime period to advance its throw-in spot past half court.
Rewriting the rules and opening the latest chapter of college women's basketball, the NCAA has reinvigorated the sport with the novel innovations. The game is more functional, free-flowing and offensive-oriented than ever before. It's on the cutting edge and exciting to watch.
"When we first made the rules changes mainly it was just kind of to try to get the game where we want it so it would be consistent across all levels whether it was Olympics, European play, WNBA, college or high school," NCAA Associate Director of Media Services Rick Nixon said. "Now we're all kind of playing by the same format within the game. I think there was some apprehension at first, but the way it has turned out has been very, very positive. I think 95 percent of the coaches and fans have embraced the four quarters and the changes where you can bring the ball right in front of your home bench for the last play of the game situation.
"All of that has worked out very well for us. It's been embraced by those in and around the game, and it's probably worked out better than we thought it would."
Transitioning from the old style to the modernized version the NCAA instituted in October, everyone from the coaches and players to the officials and the scorekeepers made the jump relatively smoothly.
Before the season even started the NCAA mandated that each coach in all three divisions and any official that had the desire to work Championships would be required to watch a video that breaks down every rule change and how it impacts the game.
Meanwhile, the NCAA covered its bases in regards to considering the subsequent changes that needed to be made in regards to the official scorebook, shot charts and all of the other little collateral pieces that go around the game.
"I personally was thinking the start of the season is going to be rough because you have to do stats differently, the official scorebook different, you have to do all those different pieces differently," Nixon said. "I think our member schools adjusted quickly and really adapted to it. I think our next step is marketing and really figuring out what are those things within games we could do a little better to (take) advantage of the new setup and how the game flows."
Last season the average duration of a game lasted about an hour and 49 minutes. Although its only a slight change, the national average has dropped by a minute. The pace of the game from an overall perspective is slightly faster; however, when considering the additional effect of the rules changes, it is clear that they've been impactful.
Scoring, time of possession, field goal shooting percentage and 3-point shooting percentage have all increased, while the number of free throw attempts has decreased. The statistics are bearing out and showing that the game is moving in the right direction.
With the landscape of the game changing so much, an opportunity for coaches to be innovative and take advantage of the changes with new strategies has presented itself this season.
"We have coaches out there that are traditional in their thinking, but we have a lot of younger coaches, too, that want the game to be different," NCAA Director of Officiating Tina Krah said. "I think they'll continue to experiment with the rules. I think there's always a way to continue to do things differently. Coaches are generally creative individuals.
"I coached for 21 years, so I kind of can't wait to see when these coaches really look back and say 'this is going to be exciting because this is how we're going to prepare going forward.'"
As coaches around the country dissect the innovations within the game to prime their teams for competition, they will inadvertently perpetuate the hype that's surrounded the sport this season. The changes are becoming more commonplace, but the way they are being utilized is still evolving.
"Now you can do more coming out of a quarter break than just a timeout because you have more time to prepare your team to go back out on the court," Krah said. "The advancing the ball and understanding whether or not you want to foul, those are the things that will be refined and, more importantly, being able to teach your players what strategy you want.
"We educate the coaches in October, and then they go into practices, so they're trying to figure it out at the same time they're trying to teach their players. I think it's improved from the start of the season until now, but I just see that refinement continuing to happen."
The overall functionality of college women's basketball has improved on the hardwood, but it's also improved from a marketing standpoint as well.
The longer breaks between quarters have created an opportunity to promote the sport more, keep the fans entertained in a more interactive way, and it's also yielded ancillary benefits on a national level as well.
"I think the unintended consequence in some ways is because we now have longer breaks at those quarters the game is being talked about a little bit more," Krah said. "The content that the announcers are talking about (has changed) -- they're talking about our players, they're talking about our stories around women's basketball. "
It might be about the two teams on the court or it might be about another game, but I think there's a heck of a lot more conversation going on about women's basketball on a national level."
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Taking it a step further the NCAA conceptualized a way to generate its own buzz around the sport, releasing a Top 10 list of its own on Feb. 1. Last year they did a Top-16 list it was out once on Feb. 11, 2015, but this season the idea was to take it a step further, and update the list twice after the initial release, so fans can follow what the committee is thinking at a particular juncture leading up to Selection Monday on March 14. The highly anticipated release dates of the remaining Top 10 rankings are scheduled for Feb. 15 and Feb. 29.
"We thought it really had a great payoff for us," Nixon said. "We were excited about it. ESPN was excited about it. It's something that no other sport has ever done. Men's basketball hasn't done it, and it's the first time for women's basketball to do a Top-10 announcement. It really was part of the conversation of wanting to get more people involved with women's basketball.
"We wanted to peak people's interest in January and February. We did these rules changes, which is great but it's becoming part of the fabric of the game now. From November to now, that's really been the top story, but now we want people to know who the top teams are with the championship coming up."
With the positive response, the NCAA and women's college basketball got from the initial Top-10 announcement, it may expand the rankings system in the future.
Along with generating buzz about the sport in a positive way, the NCAA also accomplished giving college marketing programs another tool to promote the sport and their individual team.
One of the biggest adjustments women's basketball has faced as a result of the new setup is finding a way to capitalized on the longer breaks and utilize the entire two minutes and 45 seconds. The marketing teams of college programs around the country have been wading through the experimental phase, trying to do additional promotional on-court activities to involve fans and create video board messages to provide entertainment.
"We've been reaching out to the campuses to really try to help them to guide it together, so we have that one theme, that one story and we're all kind of telling the same story," NCAA Director of Marketing Tracie Hitz said. "Some of the people on campus were kind of nervous about that changes. The timeouts are kind of long, and they were worried about being able to entertain the fans with the limited budget and limited staff.
"We've just been chatting with them to really try to help them with what they're doing because what happens in the regular season happens in the championship as well since they host the first and second rounds."
In response to the concerns of campus marketing teams, the NCAA has taken a profound approach and completely opened its doors to ease the challenges individual colleges are facing. It's launched a new initiative to get every on involved and communicating across the country to share what's working, communicating via email, Twitter and Facebook.
Hitz even started a blog to share ideas that have worked for other colleges. The NCAA has also set creative challenges to earn a donation to the winning school's marketing department to further promote development.
"Just trying to get everyone on the same page across so many programs has been fun and it's really exciting to see those changes happening," Hitz said. "We're the NCAA, and people should come to us and ask us questions, so we're trying to establish ourselves and make sure people know we're here."
Hitz hosts quarterly webinars to make sure marketing directors are all on the same page, to discuss the cheers and jeers of recent promotional techniques and to make sure everyone is familiar with her and understands they are welcome to reach out for assistance.
"Before, the initiative was promote the Championship and sell out the Final Four, but we can't sell out the first and second rounds if we don't have that regular season attendance," Hitz said. "We have spent a lot of time in the last couple years trying to get the regular season attendance up."
The NCAA even went as far as making a shuffle game for the video board available to every program to use at no cost to help alleviate the pressure of providing content with a small budget.
At the same time, the college marketing departments are being encouraged brand their coaches on Twitter, reach out to niche crowds to promote games and convert fans one at a time. The schools who have executed and utilized those approaches well have already seen increased attendance this season.
"A lot of people are fans of their school, but not necessarily women's basketball in general," Hitz said. "If their team isn't in it, they might not watch the tournament. We really want if they can come together and get people to watch women's basketball. That's our main goal moving forward."
With all these changes, one thing is clear -- from top to bottom the women's basketball overhaul has improved the fan experience. The game is more exciting, and everything that takes place around the game is improving. If there was ever a time to start paying closer attention to the sport, it's now. As things become that much more refined at every level, things will only improve.
The attendance numbers aren't there across the board just yet, but all the work that's been put in to make improvements should reap the rewards soon enough as the postseason closes in with more potential to yield close, exciting games than every before.
"We've kind of seen all our different constituencies -- coaches, officials and players have adapted," Nixon said. "Fans hopefully will embrace it more going forward. I think that's kind of the next step is fan appreciating it more as we go along."