Blame 10-foot rims for women's woes


January 16, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Understand this right away about the devilish matter of selling women's basketball: The rims are the problem. The rims are the reason the game will never get the widespread acceptance for which it yearns.

Florence Griffith Joyner becomes a superstar because our eyes can't tell she's running slower than Carl Lewis. Chris Evert and Monica Seles become famous because their ground strokes look so unbeatable. There is no measurement to diminish them while they work.

Women's basketball has those darn rims.

They sit there 10 feet above the court, the same as the men's game, making it obvious to any pair of eyes that the women's game is a head smaller and certainly no high-wire act, a sport played on the floor, not in the air.

The comparison is an attention-killer. It is why there is no pro league, why Olympic gold medals have not led to front-page popularity, why the college game is ignored in all but a few college-town hot pockets. The rims.

Having said that, there are places where it just doesn't matter, where fans fill the stands and games are on the front page and kids crowd the floor for autographs. It is happening at Texas, Tennessee, Stanford and Iowa, where the teams are champions. Now it is happening at Virginia, which has been to two straight Final Fours.

It has never happened at Maryland. "We're not as high-profile as I would like," coach Chris Weller was saying last night, and what attached potence to her message was that it was coming moments after her team, ranked third nationally, had pulled a 67-65 surprise on top-ranked and formerly undefeated Virginia.

The game was attended by 8,662 very loud, rowdy and finally silent fans, the total just a couple hundred more than the %J combined total for Maryland's previous 13 games this season. That is apathy.

Now, it wouldn't be notable if Weller's team weren't ranked so high. Women's teams are ignored all across the country. (Those darn rims.) But most good women's teams are not ignored. Maryland has been to three Final Fours since 1978. No matter. Crowds are always small. This year's average home attendance is 532.

Frustrating? "Not really," said Weller, laughing about the fight she has fought for 17 years at College Park. "I'm a woman in athletics. We don't worry about frustration."

Don't begin thinking she is reconciled to the small crowds, though. "Anything but," she said. "Attendance is something that's very, very important to me. Perhaps more so than winning. And I believe this is something we can overcome."

That's the voice of a lifelong pioneer, and she was smiling not just because of the enormous win, but also because she can feel a change coming. It started with the hiring of athletic director Andy Geiger.

He oversaw a national championship women's team at Stanford, and is committed to the game. He allowed Weller to hire another assistant coach, and, just as importantly, brought in an assistant athletic director charged primarily with promoting women's basketball.

"I'm just coaching for the first time," said Weller, who also has her own show on cable TV for the first time. "It's just wonderful. [Geiger] cares. He sent the players roses before the game tonight. It makes such a difference."

What is happening, basically, is someone is paying attention to Weller and her team for the first time. Will it make a difference? Well, the last two home games drew 1,025 and 786 fans. "We're starting to see some improvement," Weller said. "It takes time."

Indeed. Virginia was drawing around a thousand fans a game two years ago, before it hired someone to promote, much as Maryland just did. The average attendance has quadrupled in those two years. This year, the sale of season tickets was cut off at 3,600.

Whether that will be repeated at Maryland remains to be seen. People anywhere can find reasons not to go to women's basketball games, but around College Park there are extra reasons: pro teams, city night life. It's as tough as a sell gets.

At least the winning part, a must, is already there: This year's team is eight-deep, skilled and athletic, one of Weller's better editions, with big, agile forwards in Malissa Boles and Michele Andrew, a sturdy center in Jessie Hicks and a calm, clever point guard in Limor Mizrachi. It could be another Final Four team.

The rest is the sell, and at their best the games are no less entertaining than the men's. (And no probation to boot!) Last night Boles shut down Virginia's splendid Dawn Staley and the game went right down to the buzzer with the crowd screeching. The rims didn't matter. Yes, it's true: Sometimes they just don't matter.

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