West Coast woes

The super-cranial Division I assistant coach who penned the “Mid-Major coaches to watch for” column in December is back. This time he’s tackling the gigantic subject of NCAA disparity in the West, and what he says should be done about it. As always, your input is appreciated.

The need for a dominant major (BCS) women’s basketball team in Southern California

Twenty years. That was the last time a school west of Lubbock, Texas has won a NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball championship. Twenty long years: That’s pre-iPod, pre-OJ Verdict and pre-Bill Clinton being President. And in over the double-decade drought since Stanford last cut the nets and a West coast team has worn the crown, women’s basketball has undergone some significant changes. However, the one constant is that there has been only one BCS program in the west in the national championship discussion every year.

So while there are a myriad of reasons why the title drought has occurred, rather than delve into the reasons why there hasn’t been a champion west of Texas in the last twenty years, let’s examine why can be an argument made that of importance of why a BCS-level championship program NEEDS to emerge in Southern California is just as important.

The Cardinal Conundrum

First things first, let’s state the obvious about elite level college basketball on the west coast – Stanford is good. In fact, check that: They’re REALLY good. And if you aren’t sure that they’re good, rewind the DVR to watch the show put on by Stanford when they easily dispatched Tennessee 97-80 earlier this year at Maples Pavilion. But what makes Stanford special is not only are they good this year, its that the Cardinal have been a model of consistency for the past two decades. Just consider a few accomplishments of JUST the past ten years for a moment:

Haven’t had a season with fewer than 20 wins (one of the benchmarks of BCS success)
Finished first in the Pac-10 regular season each year
Finished with 30 or more wins 6 times
At least one NCAA tournament win each year

There have been challengers who make an occasional two- to three-year run, but as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in west, Stanford seems to always be there at the end making another Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight run. And armed with athletic administration committed to success, a Hall of Fame coach in Tara VanDerveer and tons of talent still flowing into Palo Alto, it also stands the reason that Stanford isn’t going anywhere.

Nice, So what’s the issue?

The problem isn’t that women on ‘The Farm’ are too good. The problem is that there hasn’t been a consistent BCS challenger on the west coast to act as a counterbalance – Specifically to draw more media and fan interest. Like Bird needed Magic, Batman needed the Joker and Coke needs Pepsi. Stanford needs a counterbalance out west, a true competitive rival.

Why Not Cal?

At first glance the Cal Bears could provide that rival. One could argue that the rivalry could be a situation similar to Duke-North Carolina in men’s basketball on Tobacco road. The hiring of former UCSB Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb was a savvy hire by Cal’s AD Sandy Barbour. Gottlieb’s bright (former Ivy leaguer), understands the Pac-12 (was a former Cal Assistant) has already made waves on the recruiting trail (securing the services of top ten recruit Justine Hartman last year) and appears to be committed to being at California for the long haul.

But while Cal appears to be set up for long-term success and has a chance to battle Stanford for Bay Area supremacy, it’s not Los Angeles. And the sheer number of eyes and ears of media and potential fans in Los Angeles is what would move the proverbial meter in terms of coverage and viewers. And while one can look for Cal to rise in the near future, there is an inherent need for women’s basketball to be firmly entrenched in the nation’s second largest media market outside of New York. Southern California and women’s basketball needs a perennial Elite Eight women’s basketball program.

The Argument for Los Angeles: Media and Market

Though the most of the influential sportswriters in America reside in the eastern or central time zone, recently there been a subtle movement of more western attention. Online bloggers and social media have help turn attention westward. The company News Corp Digital Media Group (Fox Sports) is now a dominant fixture in sports broadcasting and are centered on the West Coast. Even ESPN has opened a studio in Los Angeles.

With this rise of media power, slowly the Pac-12 and its members are positioning themselves as major players in television and online distribution of its members content. Examine for a moment some of the moves that Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott has made after taking over in 2009.

Expanded to add Utah and Colorado (Salt Lake City & Denver TV markets)
Negotiated a twelve-year deal with ESPN/Fox Sports for close to $2.7 billion for the length of the contract
Agreed to a long-term inter-conference scheduling collaborations with the Big 10

These are moves that are primarily initiated by football and increasing leverage with television contracts, however each of these moves have a significant effect on women’s basketball in terms of additional financial stability to fire or keep coaches in place and for scheduling should not be. But also relevant to the discussion of basketball are that the moves also create a tremendous window of opportunity for women’s college basketball in the west in terms of viewership – Which could be generated by a Bay Area-Greater Los Angeles-area rivalry among two BCS teams playing at an elite level.

An USC-Stanford or UCLA-Stanford rivalry immediately has the potential to register much like a Tennessee-UConn rivalry in the east. A rivalry with Stanford and either would provide two major things: Combatants with a tradition (which Stanford and both USC and UCLA have) and cache (BCS “Name” schools) in and two large media markets.

There would also be an added plus: recruiting.

Ratings means recruits are also watching

For years, recruits on the west coast saw Tennessee and UConn on television. In fact, they almost ONLY saw Tennessee and UConn on national television. And subsequently, seeing these two on national airwaves helped the schools become real and tangible viable options as destinations to play. Mega-prospects like Diana Taurasi and Sade Wiley-Gatewood, who have National High School player of the year credentials headed east.

Was television the only the only reason? Probably not. But the influence of seeing those only two eastern teams on national television does make a tremendous impact. Those far away schools suddenly seem less “foreign” and become more familiar to west coast recruits. And seeing the Lady Vols and the Huskies on television or highlights from a living room three time zones away, may allow prospects to think: “Maybe I ‘could’ go all the way there AND they win.”

In college athletics, recruiting, especially accumulating the 5-Star recruits, is the name of the game if a program is to be successful at a level to compete for national championships (For comparison UConn has three players in the Top 15 in the country in most recruiting rankings). And keeping California talent in California and is the first step to maintain elite level success for both UCLA and USC. The buzz of a hotly-contested rivalry with two state teams from different regions, that could win a national championship, just may help keep some of that Golden State talent at home to help get these programs over the hump and win the NCAA title.

Imagine what may of happen if Diana Taurasi had decided to stay “home” and of been a Bruin and played in Pauley Pavilion or decided to wear the Cardinal & Gold of USC. How would the history books been rewritten? What other recruits would she of attracted to either program? Could there of been a USC dynasty like the Cheryl Miller-Cynthia Cooper-McGee Twin era, but only this time in the digital 24 hour media age? Intriguing to think about, isn’t it?

Los Angeles: Who’s Got Next

Both the Women of Troy and Bruins have the financial resources, the access to recruits and the opportunity to make a dent in the Stanford dominance of the Pac-12. Both institutions haves hired coaches in the last few years who are committed to staying each school and building strong programs nationally. Each have made or in the process of making upgrades in facilities. Each has begun to creep higher in the national recruiting ratings. The only question is which program can make the final leap.

Which of the two LA programs can catch “The Big Red Machine” up north? Only time will tell. But for the potential boon it could be in terms of exposure for women’s basketball in the nation’s second largest media market and on the West coast, the hope and the need, is sooner rather than later.