NCAA creates Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee to evolve the game

The development of collegiate women’s Division I basketball took a major step forward a few weeks ago, with the formation of a new NCAA governing body.

The Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee will oversee day-to-day decision-making in all aspects of the sport, including governance of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee. The 13-member panel includes athletic directors, conference commissioners and others whose aim is to develop women’s basketball overall, and to assist student athletes.

“Women’s basketball is getting healthy,” NCAA vice president of women’s basketball championships Anucha Browne said. “The game is solid and will continue to improve behind the efforts of the Oversight Committee.”

All aspects of the sport will be developed through the Committee, in both regular and post-season play. This will include increasing attendance, player skills development, public perception of the sport, season and tournament logistics and time frames, student-athlete educational experience, and finances. The Oversight Committee will work with other NCAA committees, as well as the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA).

Women’s basketball is only the third sport to have its own oversight committee in NCAA Division I, behind football and men’s basketball.

“This (committee) shows that we’re in a listening mode,” said WBCA executive director Danielle Donehew, who is one of two non-voting members of the Committee. “We’re trying to increase communication between stakeholders and others.”

“This committee is a deliberate effort of all stakeholders in women’s basketball to unite for the betterment of our game.”

DePaul University athletics director Jean Lenti Ponsetto is the chair of the Oversight Committee. Other members include Connecticut athletics director Warde Manuel; Western Athletic Conference deputy commissioner Connie Hurlbut; Atlantic 10 Conference commissioner Bernadette McGlade; Big Ten Conference athletics director Kevin Anderson; South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley; West Coast Conference senior associate athletics director Heather Gores; Mountain West Conference senior associate athletics director Janice Ruggiero; Ohio Valley Conference athletics director Julio Freire; Atlantic Coast Conference senior associate commissioner Nora Lynn Finch; and Big 12 Conference senior associate commissioner Dru Hancock. Non-voting members are Donehew and Pac 12 Conference associate commissioner Chris Dawson.

Creation of the Oversight Committee fulfills a major tenant of a 2013 report on the state of women’s collegiate basketball, which called for mass reform. The overarching recommendation of the White Paper, compiled by Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, was that governance and management of the sport be consolidated.

Stakeholders – which included coaches, players, commissioners, athletic directors and others – wanted to see “a clear vision and a consensus about priorities as women’s college basketball is managed, going forward.” A desire for streamlined governance and management was also strong.

To those ends, Ackerman recommended establishing a common vision for the short- and long-term future of women’s basketball. She called for a broad-based, revised management structure that tackled numerous issues in a systematic fashion. The Oversight Committee is the first step toward achieving those goals.

Browne said the group’s first task is to figure out their priority areas. One of them is increasing attendance, and it’s something the NCAA has already begun working on.

In this year’s Tournament the practice of using neutral sites was scrapped, and the top-seeded teams were given home court advantage. The result was a bump in crowd size for the first time in years.

“The top 16 teams were rewarded with playing at their home sites, and it worked,” Browne said.
“(Tournament) Attendance is important for a number of reasons. For years we’d been seeing a lot of the same teams playing in the Final Four. This year we saw a much more competitive Tournament, with much smaller margins of victory throughout.”

Another focus area for the Oversight Committee will be quality of game issues. Since the first year of the women’s Tournament in 1982, average field goal percentage has steadily declined NCAA-wide, as has three-point shot percentage. The White Paper reported that many feel the game has become too physical, and has been dragged down by officiating.

The skills decline, according to Ackerman, Browne, and Women’s National Team Director for USA Basketball Carol Callan, is that collegiate players are coming in with a poorer grasp of fundamental game knowledge. This is due to the increasing demands of youth sports, which place more emphasis on playing time and less on skill-building.

“There has been a loss in the development of young players in recent years, as AAU teams do a lot of playing and not enough work on skills,” Ackerman said. “When they get to college, they are not fully formed, and it’s become a big issue.”

Callan said youth basketball has become a race for scholarships.

“The problem lies in competing interests for the young player,” she said. “The main interest seems to be the exposure aspect. There are a lot of good people who can get kids good exposure to schools, but they don’t necessarily develop them.”

Among the recommendations of the White Paper is that the NCAA and WBCA give annual awards to teams and individuals that have the highest shooting percentage. Browne said they are working on that.

USA Basketball now offers a coach licensing certification for club ball coaches, and is emphasizing coach skill development more overall. Callan said coaches and players – at the collegiate level, as well – need to step up their collective game.

“Coaches need to ask themselves, ‘am I the best that I can be’?” Callan said. “There has to be motivation from coaches to get better, and there has to be accountability with players to work on their game on their own time.”

Donehew said the WBCA is all for it.

“The WBCA aims to empower coaches so they can continue to lead in a productive way,” she said.

As for stakeholder sentiment that referees disrupt the flow of the game, Ackerman said that stems from the fact that players are now more versatile and can often play multiple positions.

“Officials are calling the game the way the rules are, but there needs to be less contact on the shooter,” Browne said. “Less physicality is what we need to restore the game. People want flow.”

Donehew said one of the working groups within the WBCA Board of Directors is dedicated to working on playing rules and officiating issues.

Currently, the NCAA’s rules committee is debating changing the game from two 20-minute halves to four 10-minute quarters, to speed up the game. This was one of Ackerman’s recommendations. Other suggestions to quicken the pace include the adoption of a 24-second shot clock, and changing lane sizes. All may at least be considered in coming years.

Other more controversial White Paper recommendations include moving the Tournament to a different time frame, doing away with conference tournaments, eliminating two scholarships per team – from 15 to 13 – and shortening the season.

The White Paper is likely the most comprehensive and broad-based research on women’s basketball status in the history of the sport. Other key calls to action by Ackerman, the WNBA’s first commissioner, are quite broad-based. They include recommendations that college coaches should strive for high profiles in their communities; high-profile coaches and athletes should have assistance with social media for image enhancement and promotion; that marketing students at colleges could be used to promote women’s basketball; communication between college teams and their local WNBA team should be strengthened; and that cross-promotion take place.

On a more personal level, the White Paper called for enhancements to the student-athlete experience. This would include assistance with injury prevention, stress management and other mental health issues, among other things.

More immediately, the NCAA has been conducting seminars and panel discussions at the last few Final Fours for coaches, other stakeholders, media and fans. This year the Monday forums were broadcast on the Internet.

“We are using the Final Four as a platform to engage women,” Browne said. “It’s an opportunity for women to celebrate women.”

Next year, when the Final Four returns to Indianapolis, several major anniversaries will be highlighted. It will be the 35th year of NCAA women’s basketball, the 40th anniversary of USA Basketball, and the 20th year of the WNBA. It will also mark the first time that the Division I, II and III championships will be hosted in the same city.

“Although that was not the intent, it will all thematically play out,” Browne said.

In the meantime, the NCAA, WBCA and USA Basketball will continue to systematically address each issue highlighted in the White Paper through the Oversight Committee, one at a time, for the betterment of the game.

“A lot of these issues are things we’ve talked about for years,” Browne said. “We’ve discussed them much more directly the last two years.”

The Oversight Committee is a huge step in the right direction.

“A common vision is needed, and important decisions come with dialogue.”