Commentary

Big 12 still strong in women's hoops

Top women's hoops performers remain, as do biggest attendance success stories

Originally Published: June 17, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

It is, admittedly, a strange feeling to wake up a day after the official announcements that the college landscape isn't going to change nearly as much as it looked like it might … and realize that the preparation for a potentially very different women's basketball world is not needed.

[+] EnlargeBill Fennelly
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBill Fennelly and Iowa State were third in the nation in average home attendance (9,316) last season.

At least not for now.

There are still many conspiracy theories flying about -- "Texas brilliantly orchestrated the whole thing to gain even more power!" is a particularly popular one -- and the thought remains that alliances are always subject to be broken up if the money/circumstances are right.

Not to mention who knows how economic conditions over the next decade might impact college sports in ways we can't predict. If the grass starts looking vibrantly green in one conference as opposed to another, the whole merry-go-round almost certainly will start again.

But for now, it appears the Big 12 will stay mostly together, losing Colorado to the Pac-10 and Nebraska to the Big Ten and putting Texas even more in control than before.

This is all being sliced and diced by observers across the country, but I'll offer some thoughts specifically as they relate to women's basketball. The Big 12 has led all leagues in attendance for the sport for the past 11 seasons. Several factors have contributed to this.

The fan base in many Big 12 states has been predisposed to being more open to supporting this sport because women's and girls' basketball has a stronger history in these places.

Also, the natural rivalries that come about because of geography have been strengthened with the newer rivalries between "North" and "South." Further, the league itself has been proactive in growing attendance for women's basketball, with efforts like the "Million Fan March" several years back and other incentives to make the individual schools' promotion departments work harder to sell the sport.

And, frankly, success at one place helps spur success in other places, out of a sense of competitiveness and community. The Big 12 has seen several of its women's hoop programs rise to national heights during the life of the conference, which began competing in 1996. Other programs could see that success and say, "Why not us? We're in the same league. What do they have that we don't have? We can do this."

Salary gains for coaches and overall program upgrades also built on one another from program to program. Not everybody is equal in the Big 12 -- or ever will be for as long as it lasts and however many teams are in it -- but there has been a feeling that everyone can compete, even if some have more resources.

The fan base of Big 12 women's basketball has formed a stronger bond than I think is the case in many leagues. This is not to say there aren't fan feuds and sparring, but that has been far more the exception than the rule. In general, the hard-core fan base at each school tends to reach out to the same folks at other schools. They love their team the most, of course, but also love the league.

Now, two of those schools will be leaving, and the pragmatic view is that these are sustainable losses. From a geographic standpoint, Colorado always felt the most remote, in the Big Eight and then the Big 12. The idea of the Buffaloes being in the Pac-10 has been floated in previous years, and I think Big Eight/Big 12 followers would say that while they might not necessarily have wanted CU to leave, the school's destination makes sense.

And perhaps -- again speaking in women's basketball terms -- Colorado adds some needed vibrancy to the Pac-10. The program has been in decline the last several years, but it's not as if Colorado doesn't have a history of being nationally competitive. The Buffaloes have been a heartbeat away from the Final Four, and with a new coaching staff led by former CU player Linda Lappe, maybe the program can recapture what it once had and help the Pac-10.

Nebraska is a different situation. Geographically, the school was anchored in the Big Eight/Big 12, but it isn't a huge stretch for it to be in the Big Ten. From strictly a women's basketball standpoint, the Huskers were not a national contender until last season, a magical convergence of having the right people at the right time.

This past season, Nebraska made its first trip to the NCAA Sweet 16. So while there is a current feeling of the Huskers' relevance in the women's basketball world, that's certainly not long-standing.

And it's up to Nebraska coach Connie Yori and her staff to show that the gains in exposure and success this season were a real indication of turning a corner permanently, and not a temporary trip to the upper echelon that isn't repeated or sustained.

So once the two departing schools leave the Big 12, what's left are still the league's top performers in women's basketball (led by Baylor and Oklahoma), the biggest overachiever (meant as a compliment) in Iowa State, and a couple of underachievers (unless there are some improvements in the next couple of seasons) in Missouri and Kansas.

The Big 12 with those 10 teams is still a very strong women's basketball conference, with its biggest traditional attendance success stories remaining linked together.

Meanwhile, Colorado can't hurt and might well help the Pac-10 in women's hoops. I think I would say the same for Nebraska in the Big Ten.

I think most women's basketball fans in the Big 12 -- of the 10 schools sticking together, that is -- are breathing a sigh of relief, almost like they dodged a destructive hurricane that could have caused a lot of damage but turned the other direction.

And Pac-10 and Big Ten women's basketball fans probably don't see the changes as making much difference at all.

All things considered, what has happened -- and what didn't happen -- is probably for the best in regard to women's basketball.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.