Mostly new Final Four lacks marquee names

March 29, 1994|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Staff Writer

The good news for women's basketball this week is that Sheryl Swoopes, who carried Texas Tech to a national championship last year and propelled the sport to higher visibility, will be in Richmond, Va., for this year's Final Four.

The bad news for women's basketball, and by extension, CBS, which will carry Saturday's semifinals and Sunday's championship game, is that Swoopes, who graduated last year, will only be signing autographs.

For the women's game, which has neither the tradition nor the following of the men's tournament, a highly visible player -- such as Swoopes or former Southern California great Cheryl Miller -- or a dominant team, like traditional power Tennessee, is easy to sell to a national viewing audience.

But neither of these seems to be in this year's Final Four, where first-time entrants North Carolina, Alabama and Purdue and 10-time participant Louisiana Tech have reached the national semifinals but not the national spotlight.

"We have to do a little more homework because we don't have the opportunity to see these teams," said CBS analyst Ann Meyers, a former UCLA All-American. "But nobody knew much about Sheryl Swoopes until last year in the tournament. The media really didn't get jumping on Sheryl Swoopes until the championship."

Swoopes, who scored 47 points in the title game -- more than any man or woman has scored in a championship game -- was a two-time All-American and the Naismith Player of the Year before winning the national championship but was relatively unknown outside the women's basketball circle.

However, Swoopes' charisma and talent helped make last season's championship game the highest-rated program of that afternoon, beating out a Chicago-New York NBA game, and the second-highest-rated women's final in 12 years.

This year's Final Four has a few players who could help fill the void left by Swoopes' departure. Alabama junior point guard Niesa Johnson and Purdue freshman forward Leslie Johnson, nicknamed "Baby Bark" for her physical resemblance to Charles Barkley, are charismatic players.

The Tar Heels have two players, senior center Sylvia Crawley and junior forward Charlotte Smith, who dunk regularly in warm-ups but haven't done so in a game.

"People would all of a sudden stop and say, 'Wow, women dunked the ball in a basketball game,' " North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "I think it would give more recognition to the game. One thing we need to do nationwide is educate the public about what a great game it is. I've had people say to me every day they didn't know women could play like that, that it's so much fun to watch. A dunk probably would help a lot more people to stop and take notice."

A dunk would create interest for the women's game, which is growing in popularity but not in numbers strong enough to demand more network television exposure.

CBS will carry three regular-season games next season and will continue to require the NCAA to schedule the semifinals and championship games on consecutive days, rather than with a day in between, as the men's Final Four operates.

Lynn Pecci, CBS program administration manager, says the key for additional women's coverage is for sponsors to commit to buying advertising time during broadcasts.

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