Women’s college basketball is fast-breaking its way to new heights and the increasingly popular sport will celebrate several high-profile milestones this year.
In April, the NCAA will celebrate 35 years of women’s basketball championships. On the professional level, it will have been 20 years since the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was formed. Internationally, 2016 marks 40 years since the sport debuted at the Olympics.
Television ratings, attendance and media coverage continue to position women’s basketball as a premiere sport — particularly on the collegiate level. Interest in women’s college basketball has grown since the NCAA first sponsored it in 1981-82.
All 63 games of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship are nationally televised on ESPN as well broadcast on radio and distributed to countries around the world online. Over 20 million fans watched at least one‐minute of the 2015 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship on an ESPN channel.
“The tournament has really expanded in a way that you wouldn’t have imagined 35 years ago,” said Anucha Browne, NCAA Vice-President, Women’s Basketball Championships.
Browne, who played in the first women’s basketball tournament in 1982, oversees management and operations of all three divisions of collegiate women’s basketball championships.
“I would say this is a labor of love for me…I’ve had the wonderful privilege of watching the game progress for the last 35 years,” said Browne, the first woman in NCAA history to score 30-or-more points in six straight games and Northwestern University’s first All-American women’s basketball player.
Browne says that progression includes not only the growth of the championship that now has 64 teams, but also the growth of the student athlete, improvement of coaches and the rise in popularity of women’s basketball worldwide. “There’s a significant investment in women’s basketball and because of that significant investment in the sport you’re going to see constant comparisons with other sports,” she said.
“But, the one thing that I would say when you talk to the true fans of the sport, what they will tell you is I love women’s basketball because it’s the pure way that the game is supposed to be played, ” she continued, referring to basics like shooting, passing and rebounding.
Despite the embrace of more fundamentally sound basketball by basketball fans, Browne admits that the women’s championship has to do a better job of expanding its fan base—something she says starts with the support of other women.
“I think one of the most important things is women need to make sure that [other] women are consuming women’s sports and when you want to broaden your appeal, it has to include women as a base,” she said.
Browne explained that upwards of 60 percent of their viewing audience is male, but at games a large percentage of the fans are women, making it important to pay attention to that in order to grow that demographic.
In addition, she believes that in order for women’s college basketball to grow, there has to be further investment in the communities that these college teams are a part of. She urges coaches and student athletes alike to get out into the community to promote their basketball programs and further develop fan bases from the bottom up.
In her role as vice president of women’s basketball championships, Browne says she and her staff provide a number of webinars with information on everything from best practices of marketing a team from college campus to community, to obtaining game sponsorship. “It’s one thing to say we need our coaches to support and grow the sport on campus, but it’s another to give them, show and help them with the tools they need to do that,” she said.
This season many fans will argue on whether UConn head coach Geno Auriemma will lead the nation’s top team, including standout players Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck to their record 11th national title.
Baylor’s talented junior forward Nina Davis and senior point guard Niya Johnson are the duo expected to make Baylor a serious Women’s Final Four contender this year. Several other standouts to watch during this year’s championship games include South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell and A’ja Wilson and Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner, Lindsay Allen and Michaela Mabrey.
Off the court, the 35th anniversary celebration of NCAA women’s basketball championships will also include several events for fans and community enhancement projects as a part of the championship games across divisions. Scheduled highlights include a 5K run/walk, youth basketball clinics, a concert headlined by Salt-N-Pepa and a women’s advancement summit.
The goals of these championship events include celebrating current and past student-athletes, empowering women and having a positive impact on the community.
Browne says women’s basketball as a tool that at the collegiate level must be focused on developing leaders with meaningful careers because “it’s not just about the next four years, but the next forty.”
The NCAA Women’s Final Four games will be played in Indianapolis throughout the first week of April. It will be the first time in the history of NCAA women’s basketball that all three divisional championships will be decided in the same city and venue. Tickets for all games are on sale now.
To purchase tickets and for more information in regard to the Women’s Final Four championship events, please visit NCAA.com/WomensFinalFour.