As children of the Midwest, we know all too well the damages that negative momentum can cause. A few lay-offs turn into an entire factory closing, a few abandoned houses turn a once thriving neighborhood into a blighted community. Sometimes those of us that are passionate about the MAC feel the same way about our sports. We see once full stands sparsely populated, and the panic sets in. We worry that our beloved conference is headed the same direction as the local Ford plant.
Personally, I like to dream up crazy schemes, far outside the box, that will save the day. The reality is there is no day that actually needs saving. Sure, the MAC has her struggles like everything in this world, but the conference is chugging along. A big reason those stands are empty is because it’s a midweek game that the entire nation is watching on TV. Administrators are making changes that they think will best help their institutions remain viable for years to come. They are signing deals with ESPN and the like that bring in money and publicity. They are investing in new practice facilities and tweaking uniforms in an attempt to appeal to the new wave of recruits that will carry on torch of MACtion.
However, there is one trend that they are maybe overlooking. Women’s basketball is trending up. The WNBA is gaining momentum. Television viewership is up, and they are breaking records in other key markers of growth. I also found this article very interesting with regards to just where the WNBA is with regards to their male counterparts. In addition, Title IX almost guarantees that women’s sports are going to continue to rise in this country. As we are finding out more and more, once exposed, people love women’s basketball. These are the Final Four numbers from last season, and they are almost sure to rise since the first two games this year were nail biters.
Women’s basketball offers the perfect opportunity to increase the MAC’s brand and national footprint. Buffalo and Central Michigan both made sweet 16 runs in this season’s NCAA tournament, but that is only part of it. The league is going to be loaded next season, too. Both those teams return quite a bit of firepower, plus Miami made huge strides under Megan Duffy. While Ball State lost a lot of talent, they still return Carmen Grande, and Toledo is always threat under coach Cullop. The turnaround EMU had this season is even more impressive when placed against the backdrop of just how good the rest of the teams in the conference performed in the post season, and so on.
While I know money is tight, I would like to see a concerted effort from the league and individual schools in promoting this product. Currently, the sports information departments do a great job of getting the fan bases the news and stats they need. However, where I feel the schools could do a better job is getting the students more involved. I personally am fine if the beatings continue until morale improves, however hard promoting and free tickets would probably be the better course of action. One thing I love is the midweek afternoon games that the schools play so that they can bus in middle school kids. Why does the fun stop with college? Imagine Kent playing Akron Wednesday at noon, with any student that has a ticket getting a free pass from class. Heck, include the professors, too. Everybody gets a seat and a day off! The arena doors are open, the women are playing, there is no reason not to do their best to ensure the place is packed, even if it costs a little bit more in security and the like. Eventually, after enough close games and fun times, those freebies will turn into paying customers.
The packed arenas also add the benefit of attracting recruits. This is another area where the positive momentum of the sweet 16 runs could be capitalized on. I am going to use Central Michigan as the example. I am not sure what the pipeline really holds, as the Chippewas really only went 5 deep most of the season. They lost two great players, but also return 3 great ones. Maybe there is an immediate need there, maybe there is not. I know they are not “legally” allowed to recruit transfers, however, if the need is there, I would make sure every center from a power school that feels like she should be starting knows there is a need. The relaxing of the transfer rules is another thing that can help the more successful smaller schools cope with their lack of depth.
To put it simply, there are a lot of things that are going the MAC’s way with regards to women’s basketball. I am going to do something that may seem sacrilegious with some Midwestern mindsets, I am going to compare women’s college basketball to college football. We are in the 1930s. UCONN and Tennessee are the Notre Dame and Michigan of that era. However, the true golden age, which establishes the rest of the blue bloods, has yet to happen. With the current momentum, multiple programs from the MAC could establish themselves as exactly that. While CMU and Buffalo had great runs this season, every other team also can take the torch and run with it. While I am under no illusion that every school will divert funds and attention to their women’s basketball programs, my wish is that a few do, and turn a couple of the schools into national powerhouses. The opportunity is there.