Women's coaches see strong sport that still needs to be sold to fans and media

March 18, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

As the 11th NCAA women's basketball tournament begins with first-round games around the country tonight, the sport appears to be suffering from growing pains.

The interest level has never been higher, as evidenced by increased television ratings and the more than 14,500 people who packed Cole Field House to see Maryland and Virginia play last month.

In addition, sentiment appears to be rising to increase the tournament field from its current 48 teams to 56 or 64 to accommodate the growing number of quality teams.

But if the coaches of the four top-seeded teams -- Virginia's Debbie Ryan, Tennessee's Pat Summitt, Iowa's Vivian Stringer and Stanford'sTara VanDerveer -- are correct, the sport still has a way to go, in large part because they must promote as much as they coach.

"All of us who are pioneers in this sport feel a pressure to sell. It's not just playing the game. I hope the day will come when we can just play the game," said Stringer, whose Hawkeyes drew the No. 1 seed in the Midwest.

"We have to promote the game on all of our campuses and sell the game," said Summitt, coach of the defending champion Volunteers, the top seed in the Mideast.

Though the polls were dominated this season by the traditional powers, there were new ones, like Miami (Fla.) the Big East champion, and Vermont, the nation's only unbeaten team in men's or women's basketball.

Twenty-two teams that made last year's tournament are not present this year, and, for the first time since the NCAA began sponsoring a women's tournament, there was controversy over teams that did not get into the field.

Auburn, Georgia and North Carolina State, which collectively had missed two of 30 possible tournament appearances during the past 10 years, were left out of this year's draw, as was Georgia Tech, which, in the ACC tournament two weeks ago, beat nationally ranked Maryland and Clemson and lost to top-ranked Virginia by one point.

"The strength of women's basketball is much stronger than it's ever been," said Summitt, who has won three national titles in five years. "It's time to expand [the field]. Two years ago, I would not have anticipated saying that today."

Judith Holland, chairman of the tournament selection committee and associate athletic director at UCLA, said she plans to lobby to have the field increased, but says that won't be possible before 1994.

Brian Fielding, a CBS spokesman, said ratings for the three regular-season games the network carried this year were 6 percent higher than last season.

But there are signs that women's basketball still has a long way to go.

For instance, unlike the men's tournament, where all games are played at neutral sites, first- and second-round games in the women's tournament are still played on the home court of the higher-seededteam, and teams may play regional games on the floor of an opponent.

"Until we can establish the fan support, we cannot move to the next level, and that is neutral sites," said Summitt. "I hope the game will advance to where we can get to neutral sites, but that may be four or five years away."

VanDerveer, coach of the West Regional's top-seeded team, was critical of coverage.

"The ball has really been dropped by the media," said VanDerveer. "There's a huge disparity about pre-game coverage. It's not even close. A major radio station out here said that only the Stanford men made the NCAA tournament, when you had three women's teams in the Bay area [Stanford, California and Santa Clara] who got invited."

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