Commentary

NCAA does disservice to the game by sending Portland on the road

Updated: November 13, 2007, 6:03 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

What does the NCAA have against Portland?

[+] EnlargeStephanie Lopez
Will CrewPortland fans will have to travel to see Pilots star Stephanie Lopez on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

The largest city in Oregon is a pretty pleasant place to spend a weekend. Situated squarely in the heart of both microbrew and wine country, it offers no shortage of culinary opportunities. Like pretty much everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, coffee flows like water -- all the better for keeping late enough hours to enjoy the city's thriving music scene. Visit in the middle of November and you might flirt with the gray skies and rain showers that dominate the winter months, but you're still close enough to early fall to have at least a puncher's chance of catching some sun and mild temperatures.

And if you're a women's college soccer fan, Portland is also the place to find Merlo Field at the University of Portland, home of the biggest crowds in the sport the past two years.

Not that you'd ever know it during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

For the third year in a row, the NCAA has decided to shutter the best advertisement for the growing popularity of the women's game by sending the University of Portland on the road for the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Instead of selling out the 4,892 seats at Merlo Field, as the Pilots have routinely done in the rare opportunities they've had to host games later in the tournament in the past (they also averaged more than 3,652 during the regular season this year, unofficially their third year in a row leading the nation in average attendance), Portland will head to the University of Colorado for a four-team pod that includes the hosts, the University of Denver and Hawaii.

This isn't even about the competitive fairness of starting a seeded team on the road (Wake Forest and USC also start away from home as seeded teams this year). It's not even about rewarding the fans of Portland for supporting the sport. No, in a language the NCAA has been fluent in for years, this doesn't even make financial sense.

The NCAA is going to foot the bill for flying two teams to Colorado, where the Buffaloes averaged 1,187 fans this season, instead of paying for one additional team to go somewhere that will generate four times the gate revenue.

The NCAA's stance
There are two sides to every story, and Kristin Fasbender, Assistant Director of Championships for the NCAA and liaison to the Division I Women's Soccer Committee, took time to offer her organization's explanation for Portland's predicament.

"We know what a great site Portland is, and we know that they do a great job hosting," Fasbender said.

As with any organization as large as the NCAA, rules sometimes take on an unassailable superiority which trumps individual circumstances. For non-revenue-generating sports, schools located within 350 miles of a host site are considered to be within driving range. Anything more means a flight, and committees have been ordered to keep flights to a minimum (eight teams will fly to opening-round sites this year, two more than last year).

So once the soccer committee knew Portland, Hawaii, Denver and Colorado would be together, it couldn't even consider putting them in Oregon.

"When we look at it, it's the whole bracket," Fasbender said. "It's the overall cabinet issue -- NCAA issue -- when we're doing this. It isn't like the committee sits down and says, 'Portland is going to bring in X number of dollars.' We don't have that leverage sitting in that room. …That's not one of the rules that we're able to look at. We have to look at the fewest number of flights that we can get for a bracket, because we are a non-revenue-generating sport. That is a cabinet policy that has been handed down to all committees to implement."

So perhaps venting at committee members whose hands were tied qualifies as shooting the messenger, but the fact remains that Portland's fate had little to do with either its athletic performance on the field, or just as important, its financial performance at the gate.

"This group of people is absolutely amazing," Fasbender said of the committee. "And they're sitting in this room selecting 64 teams and their first job once they get ready to bracket is to try and give those 16 seeds an opportunity to host. … Unfortunately, with the information and the rules we have, we have to implement those rules."

-- Graham Hays

According to figures obtained from the University of Portland, the school's 2005 quarterfinal at home against Notre Dame generated $34,700 of net revenue (gross revenue was $41,000). The NCAA takes 85 percent of those revenues, meaning it cleared $29,500.

And that was only one game. With two dates (two first-round games on Friday and one second-round game on Sunday) during the opening weekend of play, and even using a conservative estimate in which Portland somehow falls short of a sellout on one date, the NCAA would still get more than $50,000 from using Merlo Field as a host site.

Back to the ethical arguments: Even if travel costs for the one extra team that would need to be flown to Portland somehow exceeded the additional gate revenue (for instance, if Denver flew to Portland by way of Tokyo), wouldn't the expense be justified by the growth potential of playing in front of a full house in Portland?

Two years ago, playing at the University of Nebraska on a football weekend in Lincoln, Portland defeated the host Cornhuskers in the second round in front of a crowd of 517.

That's the picture the NCAA wants to send?

Travel costs for nonrevenue sports like soccer and softball annually threaten the integrity of the postseason competition. It's a fact of life that all brackets are not created equally.

With no disrespect to Illinois and Louisville, the middle teams in fourth-seeded Notre Dame's four-team pod this year, there is no way they represent a greater cumulative threat than Santa Clara and California do as the middle teams in top-seeded Stanford's four-team pod. Wins and RPI don't matter much more than miles on the map when it comes to filling out opening-weekend pods.

Middle-tier at-large teams and lower-tier automatic bids are disproportionately grouped east of the Mississippi, meaning if geography is the primary concern after seeding the top 16 teams in the field, seeded teams from east of the Mississippi are almost always going to have an easier road to the third round and more opportunities to host.

Given economic realities, that's a fact players, coaches and fans have to live with.

But ignoring one of the game's strongest success stories, both on the field and at the gate, as the NCAA has done yet again with the University of Portland, isn't something fans of women's soccer should have to accept as part of the price for supporting a growing sport.

Modern world or not, there are still plenty of people ready to dismiss and demean the fans who follow women's sports. The NCAA shouldn't be among them. But by telling Portland fans to stay home this weekend, the selection committee sent a message that performance on the field and support in the stands just don't matter.

And as much fun as the next four weeks are going to be on the road to the College Cup at another great venue at Texas A&M, this year's tournament is worse because of it.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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