Predetermined sites haven't boosted attendance
The Division I women's basketball committee uses the phrase "we're trying to grow the game" a lot. Including when explaining why the committee has made some of the changes it has in the NCAA Tournament, especially concerning the first and second rounds.
Have the changes helped? Here's a look at the early rounds of the tournament over the last 12 years, since the field went to 64 teams in 1994. Many have suggested that more upsets make for a better tournament, although not everyone would agree. Whatever your feeling in that regard, there isn't much of a recognizable trend or pattern of upsets over the last dozen years.
There was a small jump in second-round upsets recently -- although this past season was an exception -- and that does, in part, reflect predetermined sites. But not necessarily in a good way. You could label some of those upsets as at least a bit contrived, because a worse-seeded team ended up with a home-court advantage over a better-seeded team due to predetermination.
As for attendance, another obvious way to measure the game's growth, the most recent move to the eight-pod system for the early rounds has caused a decline. In 2005, the first year of that system, the average was 5,650 -- down more than 1,000 from 2004, when the tournament was at 16 predetermined sites.
But the drop this year was especially alarming: the early-round average for all sessions was 3,770 -- the lowest it has been since 1991, which was the last time it was below 4,000. The total number of fans for early-round games in 2006 was 90,483 -- the lowest since 1988.
The NCAA wants to give this setup more time to see if fans adjust to the changes and those numbers go back up.
Here's a look at the different "eras," if you will, of the tournament's early rounds since 1994. To try to avoid confusion, we use the term "better" and "worse" seeds rather than higher and lower.
The NCAA Tournament for women's basketball expanded to 64 teams in 1994. That year, the 32 first-round games were played on the better seed's home court, with one exception: when a worse seed (No. 13 Texas A&M) was host because the better seed's facility (No. 4 Florida) was not available.
There were seven upsets in the first round, which included Texas A&M beating Florida. Three 8 vs. 9 games are included in those upsets. All second-round games were on the better seed's home court, and there were two upsets.
In 1995, the NCAA moved to the subregional system, where the top 16 seeds were host to three other teams to play the first- and second-round games. There were only four instances during that eight-season stretch in which the better seed couldn't host because of facility/hotel availability conflict: in 1995 (No. 5 San Diego State instead of No. 4 Purdue), 1997 (No. 5 George Washington instead of No. 4 Tulane), 2000 (No. 6 Oregon instead of No. 3 Mississippi State) and 2001 (No. 5 Utah instead of No. 4 Iowa).
Of those four instances, only Purdue in 1995 overcame it and lived up to its seed, advancing to the Sweet 16.
• During this eight-year period, there were 53 first-round upsets, an average of 6.6 per season, and 49 of them came on neutral courts. The other four came on the better seed's home court. Nineteen of the upsets were in games between the 8 vs. 9 seeds.
• There were 19 second-round upsets, an average of 2.4 per season. Of these, 16 came on the better seed's home court, two on the worse seed's home court and one on a neutral court.
• The season with the most first-round upsets was 1998, with 10. That includes the only time a No. 16 team defeated a No. 1 team, as Harvard stunned injury-ravaged Stanford.
• The fewest first-round upsets came in 1997, with two.
• The most second-round upsets came in 2001, with four.
• The fewest second-round upsets came in 1999, with zero. That is the only time in the 25-season history of the women's NCAA Tournament that all 16 top seeds advanced to the Sweet 16.
The NCAA went to this setup saying it hoped to increase attendance by giving the 16 sites all season to publicize the postseason games and sell tickets. A bigger factor, though, was television. Having the sites preset made it easier for ESPN to plan for and then broadcast every game of the tournament on its networks.
• There were eight first-round upsets, six coming on neutral courts and two on worse-seeded team's home courts. Three of the upsets were in 8 vs. 9 games
• There were 11 second-round upsets: three on neutral courts, two on better-seeded team's home courts, and six on worse-seeded team's home courts. That last stat indicates one of the things that made this format so controversial: Predetermination meant there were several instances when a team with the worse seed had home-court advantage over a better-seeded team -- not by earning it with regular-season results, but because it had submitted a winning bid.
• 2003 had seven second-round upsets, which remains the most since the field expanded to 64.
• There was not a significant jump in first- and second-round attendance these two seasons, as the average per session was 6,539. The average during the previous eight seasons of the top 16 hosting was 5,792. However, in the four years prior to the move to predetermined sites, the average had been 6,411.
This brought about even more neutral games but didn't get rid of home-court advantage entirely.
Schools in communities where there aren't enough hotel rooms close enough for seven traveling parties are now out of the mix in terms of having first- and second-round games at their arenas. Their option is to bid as host at a facility in their region where the town meets the NCAA's hotel requirements.
• There have been 12 first-round upsets in this setup, all on neutral courts. Four of them were in 8 vs. 9 games.
• There have been six second-round upsets, all on neutral courts.
• Attendance has dropped the past two seasons for the early rounds, with an average of 4,710 per session.
Year 1st-round upsets 2nd-round upsets 1994 7 2 1995 6 1 1996 8 3 1997 2 3 1998 10 3 1999 5 0 2000 9 2 2001 6 4 2002 7 3 2003 2 7 2004 6 4 2005 7 4 2006 5 2 Total: 80 38Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.