While the state of Utah fixates on Jimmer Fredette and the NCAA men's basketball tournament this weekend, women's NCAA tourney games will be played right here. Did you know? And do you care?
On Saturday and Sunday, the NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament will begin first-round play at 16 sites, including at the University of Utah's Huntsman Center on Saturday. The University of Utah women will get to play on their home floor against Notre Dame -- great for the Utes, but not so great as an indicator for the popularity of the women's game.
You see, the sites for opening-round games are based to an overwhelming degree on assumptions about the teams that will get into the tournament, and have a likelihood for success. Region top seeds Connecticut, Stanford, Tennessee and Baylor will all play on their home courts during the first and (probably) second rounds, while #2 seeds Duke and Xavier will be similarly fortunate. But the #2 seed in the Dayton Region, Notre Dame, gets to play a #15 seed on that team's home court. So much for being rewarded for a successful season.
But that's the way things need to run when your sport depends almost entirely on local interest. While the NCAA men's tournament has made more of an effort in recent years to place teams closer to home with its "pod" system, first- and second-round games can still sell out regardless of the participants. What kind of turnout would we have seen at the Huntsman Center without a Utah team as an anchor?
This is far from a knock by a women's hoops hater. Twenty years ago, I was on the floor when my alma mater, Stanford, won its first national championship in Knoxville; I was there as well two years later in Los Angeles for another Stanford championship. I watched in hope as the 1996 Olympic women's basketball team built interest towards a professional league, and watched in disappointment as Salt Lake City failed to support the Utah Starzz enough to keep the team from moving to San Antonio. As a coach of youth basketball, I encouraged my players to watch the best women's programs, because it was from them that you could learn great fundamental basketball that didn't depend on alley-oop dunks.
But fundamental soundness, it turns out, doesn't sell nearly enough tickets. American sports fans have too many options at their disposal; when they watch, they want to see the extraordinary. That's why ratings for golf tournaments were always higher when Tiger Woods -- pre personal and professional meltdown -- was at the top of the leader board. That's why the Los Angeles Clippers and its rookie human highlight film Blake Griffin are suddenly a hot ticket in notoriously fickle L.A. Women's basketball, sadly, doesn't press that button that make the average spectator go "oooooh."
And so the University of Utah women's team, which snuck into the tournament based on an improbable run in the Mountain West Conference tournament, will play a game this weekend with a chance at an upset in large part because America doesn't care enough about the sport to make neutral courts viable. That's great for the Utes -- and a shame for the game.