LAS VEGAS — Prior to the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament championship game, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott held a roundtable with members of the media. He addressed a number of issues related to women’s basketball, but some members of the media showed that we have a lot of improvement to make when it comes to covering women’s sports.
Attendance and holding the tournament in Las Vegas
Let’s just say that Las Vegas is a very expensive city. From parking to ride share rates to daily “resort fees” tacked onto hotel rooms, it’s a big hit to the pocket book to attend the tournament even for people who have no interest in gambling. All of that money goes into an economy outside the Pac-12 footprint, but Scott believes it’s still the best option.
“What we learned with the men’s basketball tournament—and we weren’t sure we would see the same dynamic with women’s basketball—our fans really responded well,” he said. “We saw it last year even at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. I do think WNBA playing here and the Aces playing here is something that also results in an embedded fan base because Las Vegas is now seen as more of a women’s basketball market. But the bottom line is, is our fans enjoy being here. And that’s one of the reasons that we moved the event here. And we’re seeing some of the results in the crowds that we’re seeing.”
The attendance for the event was solid with just over 34,100 fans coming to games over the four days. On Sunday, Scott said that they were on track to have the second-highest attendance in tournament history. The highest? He called it the “Kelsey Plum effect” that brought record crowds to Seattle’s Key Arena in 2017. In the same way, we might be talking about the “Sabrina Ionescu effect” this season if the numbers don’t hold in the future.
Purely based on observation, the crowds were largely dependent on Oregon fans in the same way that attendance at the men’s tournament often depends on Arizona fans. From a numbers standpoint, they were slightly under what most of the teams in the top half of attendance draw at home.
The opening round games featuring Arizona State-California and Utah-Washington had 3,361 fans in attendance. The Sun Devils are the best draw in that group, averaging just under 3,100 fans per game at home. So, it was definitely an improvement for most of those teams.
A bump was seen for the second set of opening round games. The Oregon State Beavers—the best draw among the four teams—pull in 5,902 for an average home game. The evening games, which ended with OSU and Washington State, had just under 4,400 in attendance.
For the quarterfinals, the session featuring Arizona-Cal and Oregon-Utah drew much better than the later session, but the number was still not significantly better than an average game for the Wildcats and was much lower than the Ducks would see at home.
The semifinal between the Ducks and the Wildcats pulled in numbers midway between the averages for the teams when they play at home. The semifinal session saw 7,266 over the two games, but many were Oregon fans who left after Oregon-Arizona.
For Arizona fans, the feedback was mixed. While saying it was expensive, one fan said she was very glad she attended. Prior to the tournament, another said that she would not be attending specifically because of the location of the event.
Scott is still open to moving the tournament back into the Pac-12 footprint. He was asked about the possibility of returning to Key Arena, and he did not discount it. But the 2021 tournament will be same time next year in Mandalay Bay for the women of the Pac-12.
COVID-19 and the NCAA Tournament
Two Pac-12 schools—Stanford and Washington—had already suspended in-person classes due to the coronavirus before the conference tournament started. Stanford had also limited attendance at large events to one-third capacity. Those limitations have gotten even more stringent since Santa Clara County banned all events larger than 1,000 people for the next three weeks.
Scott was asked to comment on that Sunday, March 8, the day before Santa Clara County’s announcement.
“It’s an evolving situation every day,” he said. “There’s new guidance. There’s new policies that our schools have. We’re trying to calibrate that as best we can to follow what public health officials are recommending, but understanding the importance of these events to our student-athletes and to our schools, as well. So I don’t think I can really predict exactly what’s going to happen too far into the future except to say at the moment, from a Pac-12 perspective, we are planning on the men’s basketball tournament taking place as contemplated and the same is true as of this morning in our communication with the NCAA. They’re planning on each of the events in each of the venues.”
Monday’s ban puts the logistics of Stanford’s hosting into question, although they just held the Pac-12 wrestling championship in Maples Pavilion with a limit on the number in attendance. The Cardinal are set to host according to the last NCAA release of the top 16 teams and every bracket prediction since.
Will the team have games in Maples with fewer than 1,000 people in attendance? Will they look to venues in the surrounding counties to play the games? Or will the NCAA force them to play on someone else’s home floor? All of those questions are still unanswered.
The status of games at UCLA is already known. The Bruins have banned spectators at all events until April 10. That means that any games hosted at Pauley Pavilion will have only the athletes, coaches, staff, trainers and credentialed media in attendance.
For Arizona, there was limited concern by Pima County officials as of Tuesday. The biggest concern for the Wildcats may be a bit different than for some other schools. With the virus being most dangerous to older people and those with compromised immune systems, the age of the fan base needs to be considered.
A glance into the stands at any Arizona women’s basketball game will tell you that a significant number of the season ticket holders are older. This is true of many sports in Tucson, especially women’s sports.
The Wildcats also face another important concern. People with diabetes are believed to be at greater risk of complications from the illness. Both sophomore forward Cate Reese and freshman guard Helena Pueyo deal with Type 1 diabetes.
Arizona fans are anxious to see the Wildcats play tournament games in McKale Center. The last time Arizona hosted, the athletic department had cleared the schedule because they expected the team to be in the tournament and wanted to give them the chance to play in front of their fans.
It was 2006. Star player Shawntinice Polk unexpectedly died just before the season. McKale hosted women’s tournament basketball, but the team didn’t qualify. Now projected as a No. 3 seed by Charlie Creme of ESPN, it’s a different tragedy casting a pall over the postseason for Arizona.
Update on Stanford:
Stanford says it's still willing to host NCAA women's basketball tournament if picked but only "participants, coaches, working staff, officials, credentialed media, and a very limited number of family members, friends, and guests of the competing teams will be allowed to attend."— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) March 11, 2020
Pac12.com’s Michelle Smith asked Scott about the lack of a dedicated streaming option for people who don’t want to change their primary television provider. The news is not what some wanted to hear and it won’t change any time soon.
“We’ve heard that about football over the years, men’s basketball, other sports and it’s indicative of where women’s basketball has gotten at this stage that fans are really interested outside of our footprint,” Scott said. “But at the moment, our agreements with our distributors do not allow us to just offer individual events. They have to buy a package, a bundle, either with a cable or satellite provider, or one of the over-the-top services that we are with, and that’s the case through 2024.”
The media needs to do better
It isn’t news to anyone who covers women’s sports. Far too often, a press conference or other media event that is supposedly dedicated to women’s sports turns to men’s sports in some way. This roundtable was no different, and the blame fell on several of the men in attendance.
The three women who spoke to Scott asked about things relevant to women’s basketball or International Women’s Day. For some of the men, the questions began to veer into football or Scott’s contract or other issues that had little to do with the event or women’s sports, in general.
Scott is scheduled to meet with the media again during the men’s tournament. He also meets with the media during conference media days for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. Questions concerning football officiating or whether he would be the one leading the next round of media negotiations could be asked at other times.
Most estimates are that only about 4 percent of sports coverage focuses on women’s sports. At the crowning achievement of Pac-12 women’s basketball—the best league in the country with countless players up for national awards—women still didn’t get to take center stage in the minds of some journalists.