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April 3, 2006

Joni Comstock

Sue Donohoe


DEBBIE BYRNE: We will let Joni start with an opening statement here and then we'll go to your questions for either of the two of them.
JONI COMSTOCK: Thank you Deb. First of all, I would like to thank everyone for coming this afternoon so we can talk a little bit more about the tournament. I also want to say, congratulations to the coaches, student-athletes, and certainly to members of the media. I think that we have all worked effectively together to continue to support and promote and develop women's basketball. And I think all of us on the committee feel like it's been another great year. We're looking forward to the final game tomorrow night and that it's going to be just, again, just a great ending to a 2006 year.
As we have the committee members talked in the last few days, we really again feel like there have been a number of very positive things that have occurred and I just want to take a moment just to mention a few of those that we really consider to be highlights. First of all, of course, taking the opportunity to celebrate the NCAA centennial was a great thing for us this year. The 25th anniversary of NCAA women's championships and certainly as that centered around women's basketball and honoring the anniversary team and all of the festivities related to that.
In addition, we were pleased with the results of our first move to Selection Monday. We felt that there were a number of good things with that and certainly the coverage by ESPN and the hour-long show that we had, we felt that it was again a very great vehicle for continuing to promote and develop women's basketball. We have had our 14th consecutive sellout here in Boston, so we're happy about that and looking forward to a great crowd tomorrow night. Our Regional attendance was up at all of our sites and that collectively accounted for an additional 22,000 people seeing those Regional games.
In addition, the Regional finals posted the second highest ESPN rating ever. That was also a great thing and the Connecticut-Duke game was the most viewed Regional in the ESPN history with a 1.95 rating. Overall ESPN has shared with us that at least at this point their ratings are up over 22 percent. So that's again certainly something to be very proud of and excited about as it relates to the development of women's basketball.
Again, I think it is certainly a tribute to not only the 64 teams in the tournament, but all of them involved in Division I basketball. I think certainly it's a tribute to the hard work of our committee and again the support and the attention that we receive from the media.
As with each of the years, there's a little controversy, each year, with teams that maybe are disappointed and have questions about why they were either not included in the 64 or where they were in the seeding process, and so that is something that the committee continues to look at, to review very carefully, because our commitment is to make sure that we continue to support and promote and do everything that we can do to make women's basketball as great as it possibly can and to reach its full potential. So again, I thank you for your coverage and for all you that you do. I know that the hours that you put in are tremendous and we appreciate it very much.
DEBBIE BYRNE: And we'll go to questions for either Sue or Joni. Please.
Q. Joni, you just mentioned 22 percent, is that 22 percent for the whole tournament?
JONI COMSTOCK: Yes. Yes. To this point, yes.
SUE DONOHOE: We held our own in and had a little bit of a decrease first and second rounds but our Regional semi-finals and Regional finals were so strong. So overall for all preliminary rounds, we haven't gotten the overnights from last night, so.
Q. For both of you, as you look back over the years of growth in the tournament, are there any particular milestones that strike you? And I'm also interested to know, are there any particular sponsors from a corporate standpoint that you can say have really stepped up and supported you more recently than in the past?
SUE DONOHOE: Well, I think that when you look at our, the last 25 years, it's interesting, I had a chance to be in Norfolk as a graduate assistant coach. And we had attendance of about 8,000. The lowest ticket price was 1.75. And then five dollars and then boy, we popped it up on the top with a seven dollar top ticket price. And I look at our attendance record now at 29,619. We set that in San Antonio. We got a sold out TD Banknorth Garden, especially here at a ticket price of $140. That to me speaks volumes. Certainly we have still got a lot of growing up to do. But I think another thing that's really important to note is as we have grown over 25 years, we have grown in a good way. Our game has maintained what's good and wholesome about college athletics. And I think that the more we grow and the milestones that we reach, insuring that we retain that wholesomeness, that we retain what's unique about women's basketball. So that would be my answer to that.
To answer the second part of your question, certainly over the years, and I hesitate to call out different corporate champions and partners because you always leave someone out, but the NCAA's been fortunate over the years to have folks that had a vision that had a connectivity to college athletics and certainly to women's basketball. I think likewise our Women's Basketball Coaches Association has had those sort of corporate sponsors and individuals that really believed in our game. When you look at the exposure that these corporate champions and partners are getting, and how the brand of some of these corporate champions and partners connect with the brand of women's basketball, I think that's pretty exciting. I think more and more you've got folks out in corporate America that are seeing those connections between college athletics and particularly women's basketball and what they want to do to build their brand.
Q. I'll just take the gloves off right away, there wasn't a little controversy about the bracket, there was a lot. And a lot of that was that the RPI seemed to be used when it worked like you wanted it to and it wasn't used when you didn't. There was also statements made that were in direct contradiction to things the committee has said before in terms of how they do the bracket. What's the message teams are supposed to take out of this year, especially a team like Western Kentucky that played a tough non-conference schedule, had a 20 RPI, didn't get in, what's the message they're supposed to take or is that message going to change based on the makeup of the committee?
JONI COMSTOCK: We just came from the coaches, we had an opportunity to really talk with them about that very thing. And I think that, you know, these are, they're controversial things, they again, as you said, there have been disappointments. I also think at the same time that that represents one of the really positive things in terms of the growth of the game, the parity, and the depth of the really good coaches now that we have in the tournament.
We shared with the coaches all of the things, I mean, no question about it, the RPI is one of the tools, and I think the committee the way we like to describe it is, it's one of the tools that to help us organize the information. In addition to that, I mean, you're certainly one of the experts, I don't need to tell you that we look at road wins, conference records, non-conference record, the overall record, what they did in their last ten games, what happened in the conference tournament. And we try to weigh all of those things. And as much as we have tried to continue to maintain certainly fairness and commitment to it, it is not a science.
We also shared with the coaches that we're looking forward to our summer meetings and we'll certainly listen to them and if we need to hone those a little bit or even maybe identify some priority of those, the criteria that we look at, then we will certainly consider doing that. But in the case of Western, we shared with the coaches as I said earlier, that the best of my memory, we were in a very tough situation this year because we had I think two remaining slots and about 14 teams that we had to compare. We tried to lay out the criteria as carefully as we could, and look at all of those 14 teams across the board. And that's the difficult task of the committee that ultimately those ten people had to vote and we had to select to the best of our ability the two that were going to get those remaining slots. But Western had a great year, we recognized that from the very beginning and we looked long and hard and again. They were a great team.
Q. On the selection conference call, your committee refused to name the order of the how the No. 2 seeds evolved, and that's been done before. So my question is, why the lack of transparency on that? That's something that certainly has been put out there and been in the public before.
SUE DONOHOE: We have, we have always, we have always given the one lines. We have not given the twos, threes, fours. And so we followed the way we have done it.
Q. Is there a reason why you don't give that out?
SUE DONOHOE: Well, part of it is is because of the decisions that the committee has to make, once they start with the -- once they seed them, then once they start putting them in the bracket, it's just something that we have never shared. We have never, we never have. I don't know much to tell you beyond that. We have always shared the ones, but we have never gone deeper than that. Nor have the men's committee.
Q. Just one last follow-up, is that something you would consider for the future sharing that since you're not really sure why you haven't shared it before?
SUE DONOHOE: Well I think this: I think right now -- and I think any year, somebody asked me right after the selection show, "Are you going to meet? Are you going to discuss this this summer?" Because of some of the difficult decisions that the committee made, we do that every year. The committee sits down in the summer, in the fall, they sit back down in February. When they do they're orientation meetings to discuss principles and procedures. I think anytime we have got an opportunity to make the process better, we will. And if that's, if that makes the process better, if that builds more consensus and make it's more transparent, certainly we can talk about it.
JONI COMSTOCK: I think the committee really views sharing the RPI, as Sue said, beginning on what, I guess in January, of this year, that we're hoping that that again is a positive step, that it takes away some of that veil, so that people can understand what we're seeing, what we're looking at. And the one other thing that I wanted to mention really and just in just looking at all of this, we do have the criteria, but I have, I'm sitting here looking at a number of the committee members in the back row and these women spend a tremendous amount of time, all 10 members, watching many, many basketball games. And while we take the criteria, we take the numbers, we take the facts, we also watch those games, watch those teams. And we start doing that in November.
So that it's, that it is really as much as we possibly can. It is a fair snapshot of the entire year of the teams' performances and trying to make sure that we look at as many things as we can to again get the best 64 in there and get them in the right place so that we're representing women's basketball effectively and that we're providing a great experience for the student-athletes.
Q. In previous years the committee has taken pretty good steps to make sure that teams playing within regions when they got to the regional level had played on the same day so there was no competitive imbalance. Also that teams reaching the Final Four had played on the same day. What I mean for example, as an example, Maryland played, a team I cover, they played on a Saturday, excuse me, a Sunday, Tuesday, first and second round. Had to play Baylor which had played on a Saturday, Monday. Here at the Final Four, Maryland has played a day earlier than the team they played last night. Usually the bracket is balanced so those things don't happen. Was there something this year that happened to change that?
JONI COMSTOCK: Well, I think more than anything, what we try to do first and foremost is get the teams in the bracket, in the right spot, keep them, as you said, as close as we can to good geography, to not send them all over the country. But some, you know, somebody has to play on those certain days. And so that, we were aware of it, but we, you know, it just wasn't possible for us to get all of the teams in the bracket so that they were nearby, they were matched up with the right teams and that they were playing on those same days for first and second round and regionals.
Q. How do you see your audience as different from the audience for the men's game and how does that affect the way you market your game?
SUE DONOHOE: I think that there is a little bit of a difference. I think that over the last two and a half years the NCAA, the Division I women's basketball committee, the issues committee, has undertaken a branding initiative and we have done a great deal of research to identify who is the women's basketball fan. And we have done a lot of research to determine how do we change that casual fan and make them a big fan. How do we take that fan that when they're flipping television stations they might stop off and watch a women's game for a little bit, how do we convert that fan to a face-painting, you know, wig-wearing, fanatic in the arena? And we have taken on this initiative, we know it's a growth process, with the initiative. But I think that one thing that you see in the women's game, and we're starting to see little bit of a shift in the needle, but we have still got our work to do here is, you've got fans that are very, very loyal to their team. And they will support that team through thick and thin. They may, they're bigger fans of their team and their institution than they are of the game of women's basketball.
So it's a challenge for us to maintain that fan base and that fan connectivity with their institution and yet expand them to being a fan overall of the game. So that as we're conducting first and second round sites, they have got an opportunity on that first round game day to see four of the top 64 teams in the country. Not only will they come see their institution, but they will come watch those other three games because it's just good women's basketball. It's a challenge for us and it's part of what we have got to do and what we have got to continue to push in order not only to grow our championship, but to grow regular season women's basketball.
JONI COMSTOCK: I think just to add to that very quickly, I think two of the things that have become very, very clear to me in just talking to people this year is that everyone again recognizes the growth, the competitiveness, but two of the things that continue to remain very much respected with the women's game is the quality of play, the great coaching, and then also the sportsmanship. And that people like to bring whether it's their children or they like to come and they know that they're going to see again, just very high quality basketball that's played the way we all want it to be played, and with again with good sportsmanship. And I think those are definitely, those are characteristics that our fans are looking for. And I'm proud that we have in our game.
Q. Since we have a little, this is for Sue, a little different dynamic going on this week, any concerns that the game goes one-sided tomorrow night that ESPN may start changing its focus during the broadcast to Wednesday's event and the fact that all that's gone on, have you had any problems or anything extra from your side of the fence?
SUE DONOHOE: No, not really. We were made aware that WNBA wanted to bring their draft here and we talked about it. First we talked about it with our television partner, certainly with the understanding that the focus of this weekend is on the two semifinal games and a national championship game, tomorrow night about midnight or 12:30 they can shift their focus. Even as recent as yesterday we had a direct dialog about that. If there's a natural fit there to say, you know, a player A who may be a first or second round draft pick, certainly, but the focus certainly to this point has been on the women's Final Four, the two semifinal games and it is my expectation and my understanding that that focus will continue throughout the game tomorrow night.
Q. I would like to know what are the factors you'll use in determining whether moving the selection show to Monday was a success?
JONI COMSTOCK: Well, I think that just one of the comments I would make again is the committee has talked about it a little bit, we were very, very pleased with the presentation of our tournament, of women's basketball, and we thought that again partnering with ESPN and the way that show was presented was a very, very good thing for women's basketball. We were down, Sue is sort of the numbers expert, but we were down a little bit in terms of ratings for that show. But my personal opinion is it's a blip, that we'll see it jump back up and I think, again, I would defer a little bit to my colleagues in the back, but I think that we all feel like we have to continue to separate and advance the women's game and have it stand on its own two feet and that we did that.
SUE DONOHOE: I think one thing, I think looking at Sunday evening, because of the men's games that were on that afternoon, if we had, if we would have had our selection show on Sunday evening, our selection show would have been about 43, 44 minutes, instead of that 60 minute show. I think the committee's very aware of some of the challenges that it creates for media across the board, for electronic and print media. They do. And the committee knew that when they made this decision that it was, it was a bit of a calculated risk, but it was a risk that they felt like that in the long run was going to help grow the championship, grow the game, and again, what we're going to receive out of Selection Monday is something that will grow over time.
One of the things that certainly as we talked with ESPN about making this move, some things that we felt like were really important, not only for Selection Monday, but for the growth of the game, was an enhanced presence for women's basketball during the regular season. I think we certainly saw that from ESPN. We had our big Monday night. I think ESPNU gave us some women's basketball exposures that we had not had in the past. I think we saw an expansion of the bottom line. So all of those were parts of the discussion. Not only was Selection Monday the decision to try and give women's basketball a place to stand on its own, but also there were other parts attached to that to say, let's grow during the regular season and then through the championship as well.
Q. Just one follow-up on that: Is there any fear that you, by the decision, you might have alienated or hurt your coverage among the print or local electronic media because of the time of that selection show?
JONI COMSTOCK: I think that's something that we have to continue to evaluate. Obviously that print media is extremely important to us. And so again, my only comment would be that we're continuing to look at that and we want to make sure that it's a good decision for everyone involved who is helping us with the game.
Q. If you guys both could talk about this: It seems like, I don't think there's any question whether you admit it or not you have been hamstrung by the fact that TV is now dictating a lot of what you do. You guys say you agreed to it, I don't know how much in reality it's them dictating it and how much it's you agreeing to it, but how much has that affected, for instance, setting up the brackets, you have challenges that the men's committee doesn't have, in terms of predetermined sites. You talk about the Selection Monday show, that it's going to grow, what if it doesn't? Can you sort of talk about that. Do you guys basically, are you taking a blind leap of faith that what television says is going to work is going to work?
JONI COMSTOCK: I think that one of the things, Michelle, you know, you make an excellent point there, clearly I think the committee recognized the risk involved in it. This was a discussion with ESPN over a number of years. We didn't jump into it quickly, they have been suggesting it, we have been talking about it, and what we try to do is, as Sue mentioned, make sure that they were good partners with us, so that we could also count on some additional things from them in terms of promoting that show, promoting the tournament overall, and so.
But you're right, it was a risk, and but that's what we have, we have felt with any number of things with the women's tournament through the years that we have had to look carefully, but take that leap and hope that we're doing the right things to support and advance the game. And I don't see this as anything that's any different. We're hoping that this is going to work out for the best for the game. If not, I assure you, we will continue to look and decide what we're going to do instead.
SUE DONOHOE: A couple other things, I think that you have the media piece of it and moving to Selection Monday, we spent a great deal of time visiting with our coaches about Selection Monday, and there was a little bit of a split on that. Some said, hey, jump out there, gives us an opportunity to stand on our own, be on our own, get our own exposure and then you had some coaches that said, you know, why? Why change now? So there was a little bit of a split on that.
But a lot of the things that the coaches were concerned about was how is it going to impact us as a team to travel. If the men announce on Sunday, are we going to be put at a disadvantage for travel? So those were certainly concerns that we addressed with before the committee ever made a decision. And quite candidly, we were better able to service our women's teams this year than we have ever been able to do and it's because that our travel staff was able to focus on the women totally without having to share focus with the men's teams that they were trying to do. And I think another piece of that, not only are you moving Division I men's basketball, Division I women's basketball, you're moving Divisions II, III, you're moving ice hockey and you're moving a whole lot of officials and committee members all at once. So certainly the committee will continue to look at it, if we're going to grow, we're going to have to take some risk, and the committee didn't take that decision lightly. I can promise you that. They did spend probably two and a half, three, four years just discussing the decision before they were ready to make it.
Q. You mentioned a while ago that about two and a half years ago you started some branding initiatives to try to turn casual fans into fanatics. Can you be a little more specific about what you tried to do and maybe which ones worked and which ones haven't?
SUE DONOHOE: Sure. What we did, we identified five attributes that folks identify with with women's basketball. And Joni mentioned those: High quality of play, sportsmanship, role models, strong academics. Those type of attributes that when folks think about Division I, Division II, Division III women's basketball, they say, that's why I have an interest in basketball. And so what we have done with the branding initiative, we have reached out to Divisions I, II and III, because we feel like it's a grass roots effort at all decisions, we have reached out to each one of our institutions, to the head coaches, to the marketing director, to the directors of athletics to engage them and get them activated in the branding initiative. Likewise we reached out to our Divisions I, II and III conferences and we have asked for a commitment and an activation from those groups. Last year at our women's Final Four we had a meeting with our coaches, all of them, all decisions and it was a call to action and basically here's our tag line for the branding initiative, "It's all day, every day, our game." And we ask our coaches at the Division I, II and III level to make that commitment that it is all day, it is every day, and it is our game. And the measurable outcome for the branding initiative is to increase our fan base. To increase it at every Division I, II and III institution. To increase it during the regular season and during the championship as well.
If we're going to continue to grow the championship we have got to continue to grow during the regular season. And so this is a collaborative effort in order to try and achieve that. That's the measurable outcome, it will take several years to do it. But it's been amazing to look at some of our institutions and our conferences and how they have embraced the branding initiative and how they're trying to roll it into their branding activation either as an institution or as a conference. So we'll keep working on that.
Q. In terms of Selection Monday, what sort of timetable have you given yourselves to determine whether it's going to be successful, what outlets have you given yourselves whether you can go back to Sundays or make other alternatives? And also in terms of, have you discussed the travel and trying to grow your fans, well, what considerations did you take with the fans when you're giving them one less day to make their travel plans, which is already a pretty expensive bill.
JONI COMSTOCK: I think in terms of evaluation of Selection Monday, I think again what we will be doing this summer is sitting down and looking at it when we have all facts in about whether -- it's the gamut. You know, the ratings, attendance, everything related to starting our tournament with that Selection Monday. See what it looks like and then I think that it will be at that point where the committee will decide even then if we feel like it has been a good decision, and we're going to keep it, or if we do feel like it needs our careful eye, then I think probably at that point we'll put a timeline on it and decide what we want to do from there.
Q. Is there any consideration to when you have the eight predetermined sites for the first two rounds, having either a one or a two seed in each one of the eight sites? So that in a market like Chicago they have two No. 4 seeds and no 1, 2 or 3 for the first two rounds?
SUE DONOHOE: Steve, when the committee puts teams into the brackets certainly they have the principles and procedures by which they put them in. Putting a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed at a site is not one of the principles that they have to follow. Do they look at it and do they try and do that? They do as much as possible. But they can't do that at the expense of the other principles and procedures by which they have to follow. When you look at your Chicago site and they didn't have a 1 or they didn't have a 2, but you look at the 4's that they did have, when you look at a Michigan State and a DePaul and a UW-Milwaukee, a Kentucky, a Tulsa, you know, certainly you had a great site. But if they can do that, they will do that. But it's not a principle that they have to follow.
DEBBIE BYRNE: Ladies, thank you very much.

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