March 22, 2006 - As the majority of college hoops fans in the greater Tucson area settled down in front of their televisions, radios and Internet March 17 to take in the University of Arizona men's basketball team's first round game against Wisconsin, basketball was still stirring in the underbelly of McKale Center, home of the Wildcats.
While Lute Olson and his team were systematically taking apart the Badger defense, another coach was holding court a free-throw's toss away from the floor named after the Arizona coach.
On this St. Patrick's Day morning, Elaine Elliott, head coach of the University of Utah's women's basketball team, addressed a sparse media gathering by talking about the "natural progression" of women's hoops.
During her speech, Elliott mentioned that women's basketball is 75 years behind the men. The following day as her Utes took to Lute and Bobbi Olson Court to face Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA women's tournament, it was painfully clear what the Utah coach was talking about.
The first round game drew a measly 2,156 fans in an arena that normally holds more than 14,000 for the UA men's games. The marquee match up of the night, which featured Northern Arizona University - a school within traveling distance - and the defending NCAA champs Baylor University, only drew two more people than Utah-Middle Tennessee State.
Even the Arizona State-Stephen F. Austin game - which featured the homecoming of Catalina Foothills High School's Kate Engelbrecht (See The Sporting Life pg. 21A), one of the finest players, - was a dud as far as a draw. That game, which followed Utah, attracted only 2,234 spectators. Although it was one of those rare times that ASU is the crowd favorite in McKale, the arena that Lute built was still empty enough that you could hear individual conversations in the crowd, even while sitting on press row.
Women's basketball has shown the potential to be a big hit. The highest rated game in ESPN history-men's or women's basketball-- was the 2002 U Conn-Oklahoma NCAA championship game.
Even though the women get over-shadowed by the men, especially during rounds one and two of the NCAA tourney, it's not without its moments. On Saturday, for example, Tennessee's Candace Parker became just the fourth woman ever to dunk during a game. If you saw any highlights of the women's basketball tourney on television during the week, that was probably the only one. It's not without reason to assume that you may not have even known that Tucson was hosting the first round.
In it's basic form, it's very much the same game. Fans still chant "air ball" when a shot falls horribly short, games are won with sound fundamentals and the pain is just as real when the final buzzer signals the end of a team's championship hopes.
More often than not, marketing and self-aggrandizing is the antithesis of what sports should be. For an example, see the likes of Terrell Owens. But other times, what athletics needs is a little promotion, a boost if you will, to get it going.
How much hype did you hear about the women's tourney coming to Tucson? Chances are good you didn't hear much.
Why didn't the NCAA and/or the UA promote this event more than they did? Here was a golden opportunity to endorse an event, put people in seats and saintly doing so. Why not promote the sport by getting local girls teams of all ages involved simply by offering free or discounted group rate tickets?
It's not like ticket prices were an obstacle. For less than $20 ($10 for children) you could take in two games a day and literally have your pick of seats.
Women's basketball could thrive in Tucson the same way softball does. This year's high school state playoffs featured more girl's teams than it did boys.
In order for a sport or an event to survive in the greater Tucson area, or anywhere else for that matter, people need to know that it's going on. Until then, the seats will be empty and hard working athletes won't get the recognition they deserve.