NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Women’s college basketball has been looking for that watershed moment when a player or game could transcend the sport.
It may have finally found it.
For the first time in the NCAA tournament – men or women – unbeaten teams will square off for the national championship. Perennial women’s powerhouse programs and former Big East rivals UConn (39-0) and Notre Dame (37-0) will play for the title at 8:30 Tuesday night.
But this isn’t the first time the game has stepped into the national spotlight.
The great rivalry between UConn and Tennessee and its Hall of Fame coaches Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt drew national attention — except they haven’t scheduled games against each other for years.
But the sport hasn’t moved on, and the casual interest has.
“The women’s tournament has continued to get great buzz, but the real challenge is how fast it can develop,” said Robert Boland, who is the Professor and Academic Chair of the sports management program at NYU’s Tisch Center. “The men’s tournament was being won through the ‘70s by UCLA, but it kept growing and growing and exploded with the Magic-Bird game. The historical parallel is sort of where the women’s game is now. For the sport to sustain interest, it needs the players to move on and have compelling rivalries in the WNBA.
“For women’s basketball, college is the pre-eminent level.”
And that hasn’t been enough to grow the sport.
There have been seven undefeated national champions, and either Notre Dame or UConn will become the eighth after their unprecedented meeting. There have also been special college players, from Cheryl Miller and Chamique Holdsclaw, to Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. Yet neither combination could really make the sport more mainstream.
The hope is this time could be different.
There has never been a title game with both teams chasing perfection. It doesn’t hurt that there at the center of it are charismatic coaches and programs that everyone knows – and that really don’t care for one another. The coaches – UConn’s Auriemma and Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw – added to the drama by exchanging a couple of verbal jabs at Monday’s pre-game press conference.
It has been a highly anticipated matchup all season, a buildup that is expected to reach its peak Tuesday with chatter about it on sports radio, social media, in the media and drawing a bigger viewing audience than the title game normally draws.
“The fact that it’s Notre Dame and Connecticut, I think the women’s basketball fan obviously has an interest in (Tuesday) night’s game,” Auriemma said. “The almost-women’s basketball fan will have an interest in the game; those that have not had any interest may tune in to see what’s going on.”
Even if they do tune in, the question is how keep casual fans interested with the sport at a crossroads.
Interest has become stagnant over the past decade with ratings flattening out after reaching a high in 2002. Attendance has fallen in the NCAA tournament. The NCAA hosted a summit Monday with representatives from youth, college, international and pro basketball to figure out ways to grow the sport.
“There are seminal moments in life of any organization, industry or sport and I think without putting more pressure on Notre Dame and UConn, it does have that potential to do that,” said WNBA President Laurel Richie, who participated in the summit. “Just the fact you have two undefeated teams who are really strong teams is really exciting.”
People inside the sport are hoping that this game can be the difference maker. A shot in the arm for a sport needing to take another giant step forward and grab new fans.
“Connecticut versus Notre Dame is exactly what the women’s game needs,” ESPN analyst Doris Burke said. “Rivalries are built when teams play often when the stakes are high. For the Irish and Huskies, that has always been the case. Whether it was the conference or now with a national championship on the line.”
It’s clear the game has created a buzz – for now. The challenge for the sport is to capitalize on it.