The Hoopla Over Women's HoopsJoan O'C. Hamilton
In Stanford's victory against defending NCAA women's champs North Carolina on Mar. 23, 6-foot, 2-inch Lady Cardinal forward Kristin Folkl took a pass in the lane, juked a sweet move, and--ooh, baby!--it looked like she just might slam-dunk it. Folkl got enough air to scrape the rim but broke a few hearts by opting for a sure-thing layup. Later, Coach Tara VanDerveer allowed that a dunk "would have been fun." After all, VanDerveer sighs, "some people still have the idea that watching women's basketball is about as exciting as watching paint dry."
Some people are about to have their eyes opened. When Stanford joins the universities of Connecticut, Georgia, and Tennessee in Minneapolis on Apr. 1, the "other" Final Four will cap off the best year ever for collegiate women's basketball. Attendance, TV ratings, media coverage, and corporate interest (table) are all up--and rising.
It has been an uphill climb for the scrappy women players, who still flinch at the lack of respect they get. But, says Connecticut sports marketer Richard H. Burton, "women's sports are about to explode." And Corporate America is waking up to the same things fans are: These women can play. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division I women's teams are chock-full of three-point deadeyes, wily pass thieves, and steel-curtain defenses. "The athleticism of female athletes" is turning heads, says Michael A. Guariglia, vice-president for sports sales at CBS Inc.
All the Final Four games in the 17,000-seat Target Center in Minneapolis have been sold out since September, and General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Gillette, and other big-time spenders had sewn up CBS's 40 advertising spots by January. Those ads aren't philanthropy. Demographics show women's hoops are attracting well-educated, family-oriented fans and, not surprisingly, more women (read: the people who make household buying decisions). North Haven (Conn.) mom Debbie Saranitzky says she and her two adolescent daughters "watch every [UConn] game we can. These are incredible role models for young women." Even financial-services companies such as State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. want in. "`You shoot like a girl' has become a compliment," says Wells Fargo Brand Manager Andy Anderson. His ads in Stanford's and other collegiate women's sports programs and cable-TV broadcasts "get the same exposure for a fourth of the cost" of working with men's programs, he says.
STUFFED SEATS. Sellouts and 10,000-plus fans at games no longer set records for top teams such as the Tennessee Volunteers and UConn. At Stanford, the average game attendance at Lady Cardinal hoops this season was just a busload short of that for the school's talented men's cagers: 5,284 vs. 5,368. And starting next year, fans at home will see 20 more major women's games on TV, thanks to the NCAA's new seven-year contract with ESPN.
Of course, "all isn't peaches and cream," sniffs one New York media buyer. While teams tend to have fierce regional supporters, the sport is only slowly building a national following that would boost ratings. And without a professional league, even the best women players enjoy the spotlight only briefly before they either hang up their sneaks or go off to play pro ball in Europe or Japan.
Then, there's the hot-dog factor:
The women's game is intense and fast-paced but values good passing and other fundamentals, as opposed to the men's aerial acrobatic shows. Tennessee's Lady Vols, for example, have a sign in their locker room that reads: "Offense sells tickets. Defense wins games. Rebounds win championships."
Still, more coaches are urging women players to try to slam-dunk, because they know it would boost the sport. So, when the women hit the hardwood this weekend, keep an eye on the rim.
THE OTHER FINAL FOUR
When Stanford, UConn, Georgia, and Tennessee meet in Minneapolis on Apr. 1, corporate cheerleaders will include:
CBS sold out airtime in the Women's Final Four broadcast two months ago.
ESPN has signed a $19 million, 7-year contract for several NCAA tourneys, including the Women's Final Four.
GILLETTE and SPRINT have a disposable-razor promo featuring phone cards with Final Four themes.
STATE FARM will host its third "Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic" with the top four women's teams in November.
MAJOR TV ADVERTISERS range from Nike, P&G, and GM to FedEx and Burger King.