By: Jeffrey Newholm
I admit it: I lied. The whole time I’ve been writing for NBS I’ve been lying. Ever since my first article I’ve been pretending to be a neutral women’s basketball fan, even saying nice things about Notre Dame and Tennessee. Well now I must confess that all of that was a facade. Deep down inside I’m the biggest bluest Husky fan this side of the Eastern Time Zone. And really it’s only fair that I’m a Husky fan because were it not for them, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. I used to be just like those “stay in the kitchen” trolls who didn’t see the need to watch women’s sports, because men were just oh so much better. But all that changed one fateful day in 2009 (way back in my high school days) when I found out that there was a team in women’s basketball that was…UNDEFEATED! I’ve always been a bandwagon fan, and this Uconn team seemed like a perfectly suitable bandwagon. The rest is history. Over the years I started to watch Uconn and other women’s games, and found that following the sport made March even more enjoyable with two simultaneous tourneys to follow. The trolls are quick to point out that the women’s game is not as popular. But in my view this is to its advantage. In men’s basketball there is a huge financial award for making and advancing in the tournament, and as any economist can tell you, if there’s a big enough incentive to do something, people will cheat or steal to do it. North Carolina, Syracuse and SMU flat out broke the rules and teams like Duke and Kentucky make a mockery of the game by recruiting “student-athletes” who only go to class for one semester. With the women’s game not being nearly as lucrative, there’s not really any point in cheating, and also players usually can’t go pro early. While some may say the game isn’t as entertaining with field goal percentages lower, it’s a game that I can feel good about supporting. All this being said, the 2016 women’s Final Four was a dream vacation for me. It was the “fourpeat” Final Four for Uconn, and also a combined Final Four, meaning the lower division title games would also be held on site in Indianapolis. I already did a quick report on the semifinals, so for this post I’ll look at the other games, and give my general impressions on the event.
Holding the D2 and D3 events on site at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was a great opportunity for the next tier of talent that isn’t going to play after college and otherwise would have their finals in an unremarkable venue. In D2, undefeated Lubbock Christian, in its first year of postseason eligibility in that division, edged out Alaska Anchorage (who understandably had a smaller fan base). But for me that was just an appetizer: the D3 final pitted undefeated Thomas More, on a 65 game winning streak, versus Tufts, led by former Husky Carla Berube. It was a tight affair, but in the end Thomas More, led by D1 transfer Sydney Moss, ran away with the title in the closing minutes. I thought it was a very nice opportunity for these smaller programs to play in a big arena and join the festivities of the D1 championship.
From most fans’ point of view, Tuesday’s title game was not a good game. I was shocked to see many fans leaving at halftime! But perhaps that’s to be expected when it’s a 27 point game. My dream of seeing the Huskies cut down the nets was fulfilled, but that wasn’t nearly the best part. The old hokey adage that the journey is more rewarding than the destination proved true. Seeing my team win and celebrate was an expectation, so that wasn’t that pleasurable. What I liked the most were the little moments leading up to it. In the semifinals, Geno subbed out star point guard Moriah Jefferson with the game well in hand late in the fourth. Jefferson did a little very subtle showboating that I found very unique. She undid her ponytail, letting her long silky hair come flowing down because it was clear: she was not coming back in that game. Honestly the best part was walking the concourses at halftime Tuesday with an enormous lead, and seeing the surreal sight of seeing fans leaving at half of a championship game! What I’ve learned about our brains was confirmed: our happiest moments are those we stumble upon and take us by surprise, even if it’s just a little moment.
I think that for a budget conscious fan, the Women’s Final Four is definitely the way to go. Bankers Life is an NBA arena, whereas men’s finals are often held in huge football arenas. The NCAA tries to milk every penny it can out of the men’s tournament, so many seats at these stadiums have awful views, despite an average going price of $781 for an all sessions pass according to SeatGeek. My tickets cost just $200, and I think the view was just fine (see for yourself):
I found packages for the 2017 men’s final for $2,400 and up (not including the flight), whereas ticket, hotel and flight combined cost me just $1300, with a perfectly decent and close hotel. Unless one is a fan of one of the men’s teams, I don’t see how one could justify spending that much more for the men other than plain old sexism.
The 2016 women’s Final Four was not the most exciting. All three games were blowouts and Uconn was a very clear favorite. But in my view it was the ultimate showcase of what the women’s game offers: an excellent team well balanced with seniors and underclassmen. I firmly believe that those clamoring for parity will get their wish in 2017. Uconn’s “big three” are all going pro, while numerous other teams have more talent coming backs with better recruiting classes to boot. In all probability the Huskies’ four year dominance has sunset. But like pioneers in so many other sports, they have raised the bar. In golf there will never be someone as dominant as Tiger Woods again precisely because of Tiger: his dominance of the PGA inspired the new wave of players, such as Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, to aspire to be great as well. Tiger gave people a reason to talk about Golf-clearly he was an asset to to the game. My sincere hope is that the Huskies serve the same role in women’s basketball. The big three was awe inspiring these past three years, losing only one game. Now other programs, such as Notre Dame and Baylor, who have been working hard for years to beat Uconn, can finally break through. And with three first-time teams in the 2016 finals, there’s hope even for teams no one’s discussing now. Not a single expert saw a Washington-Syracuse semifinal coming-a 4 vs. 7 match-up that gives hope to the merely good programs. There’s a long way to go before the stigma against women’s sports abates. But this Final Four was an encouraging step in the right direction. It was a coronation of the game’s greatest dynasty, but also the shattering of the glass ceiling for three other programs. I don’t know what lies in store for the women’s game in 2017. But I can’t wait to find out.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.