Big time? Big deal, women's game fine


January 21, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

COLLEGE PARK -- No one turned away at the door this time. No fire marshals running around in a panic. No refunds for ticket holders forced to exit the building.

Less than a year after drawing an overflow crowd of 14,500 to Cole Field House, the Maryland-Virginia women's basketball game last night returned to more civilized surroundings.


There's nothing wrong with the women pushing toward the big time, but for all their hand-wringing over growth, growth, growth, the sport is doing just fine.

Go ahead, call the politically correct police. It's unconscionable to celebrate a major college sport without recruiting scandals, teen-age egomaniacs and coaches jumping contracts.

Sorry, a woman's place is not in the dome -- not if perspective has anything to do with it. The game keeps evolving, interest keeps growing. Shouldn't that be enough?

Last night's crowd of 7,198 was the second largest for a women's game at Cole, yet half the size of last year's sudden blip on the radar screen, when Maryland was ranked No. 1 and Virginia No. 2.

This time, No. 5 Maryland beat No. 10 Virginia, 70-66. It wouldn't have mattered if the crowd was 700. The game was as tense and exciting as any the ACC men will play this season.

As the lead changed 10 times in the second half, the shrieking intensified from all those 10- and 12-year-old girls who want to grow up like the Terps' Katrina Colleton and Malissa Boles.

Who cared if their favorites couldn't dunk?

The game was a blast.

Still, to Maryland coach Chris Weller, the evening wasn't a total success. "I was hoping for around 8,000, but it wasn't a great day, with the inauguration and all that," Weller said. "Hopefully, we'll get some spill-off. It'll take time."

Ultimately, Weller wants Maryland's average attendance to be comparable with Tennessee's (6,679) and Texas' (5,740). "We're making real progress," Maryland athletic director Andy Geiger said, "but you kind of have to notice it by degrees."

Patience, patience.

"It's going to be a slow process, but I don't see us going backward again," said Lisa Speas, the assistant sports marketing director at Maryland in charge of women's athletics.

"The biggest problem I have is that there's no funding to get things to happen as fast as I want them to. I'm always trying to get sponsors. We just don't have money right now for women's athletics."

According to Maryland sports marketing director Neal Eskin, approximately 15 percent of his $100,000 advertising budget goes to women's basketball. Football and men's basketball each get 40 percent, non-revenue sports 5 percent.

Speas, however, has made notable progress the last two years, devising a season-ticket brochure, targeting groups as diverse as senior citizens, elementary-school students and professional women, securing radio and television contracts.

These are significant strides in a sport that barely registered on the college landscape 20 years ago. The men's game will always be more popular -- the players are bigger, faster, stronger -- but the women certainly are carving their niche.

So, why all the fretting?

Because support for the women's game is spotty. The game between No. 1 Vanderbilt and No. 2 Tennessee at Vandy's 15,317-seat Memorial Gymnasium on Jan. 30 is a sellout. But a crowd of only 849 saw Maryland get upset at Florida State last week.

Weller, in her 18th season at Maryland, can't be blamed for craving more exposure -- she earns $70,000, men's coach Gary Williams $131,000. At Virginia, men's coach Jeff Jones and women's coach Debbie Ryan each make $106,000, but that's the exception, not the rule.

At least Weller has Geiger in her corner, and Speas, as well. The Terps' goal this season is an average attendance of 3,500. Their current average is only 2,421, but last night was their first ACC home game. The bigger draws are coming.

The product is out there now -- if anything, it receives more media coverage than fan interest warrants. Your average hoop junkie still would rather see the Dunbar High boys, but that's fine. The women are part of the basketball universe, too.

The wholesome part.

"If they would stop and think about it, there are a lot of expectations and other things that come along with all the notoriety," Geiger said. "We don't need to race toward that. It'll come in its time."

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