INDIANAPOLIS — Future NCAA's women's basketball tournaments might not have to go head-to-head against the men's tournament.
On Thursday, the governing body announced the Division I women's basketball committee will study the feasibility of moving the start of the tournament back one week from its typical mid-March start. No deadline has been set for a recommendation, and the study still needs to be approved by two additional NCAA committees. But the possibility of sliding the entire tournament back one week — and possibly changing game days — is real.
"I think what the committee wants to do is take a really hard look at what's best for the tournament," Sue Donohoe, NCAA vice president of Division I women's basketball, said Thursday. "If they believe that's what's best for the tournament, they will look at the competition days. They're going to look at the shift first and if that is the case, what is in the best interest for tourney dates."
The proposal will not affect the 2012 tournament and is unlikely to be in place before the 2013 tourney either, Donohoe said.
Currently, the women's first-round games coincide with the start of the second-round play in the men's tournament. The women's second-round games are held on Monday and Tuesday, when the men are off. The women's championship game is held one day after the men's title game.
But committee members want to evaluate whether a later start date will increase attendance, make the tournament more attractive to corporate partners and generate more media coverage.
"As a committee, we want to do what is best for women's basketball," said Marilyn McNeil, the committee chairwoman and the athletic director at Monmouth. "If this is the best way of enhancing the championship, the sooner a decision is made, the sooner an implementation date can be established."
If a new March starting date is approved, the women's basketball calendar should need significant adjustments.
The start of practice and regular-season games would likely be pushed back. Conference tournament dates would probably have to be moved, and the recruiting calendar also would probably be changed.
Donohoe also said ESPN, which telecasts all 63 tourney games, has been involved in the preliminary discussions. ESPN signed an 11-year deal to broadcast the women's tournament in 2001 and has broadcast the tournament exclusively since 1996. But Donohoe said ESPN was not pushing to move the event.
"No, this is driven out of the DI women's basketball committee," she said in explaining the committee had looked at five or six different models over the past two years.
The announcement comes a little more than three months after NCAA statistics showed the 2011 tournament had better attendance, stronger television ratings and lower travel costs.
The numbers released by the governing body show attendance at first and second-round sites increased by 4 percent from 2010 to 146,787. The four regional sites drew 68,021 fans, the third-highest total in tourney history and the most since 2003. That was a 64 percent increase over 2010, according to the NCAA. And the regional final attendance, the NCAA said, was up 93 percent over 2010.
Last season, NCAA figures show that women's basketball also drew a record-high overall attendance of 7,574,644.
ESPN's average rating of 1.44 for the tournament was a 14 percent improvement over the 1.26 average in 2010 and was the third-highest total since ESPN began broadcasting the tourney. The Texas A&M-Notre Dame title game drew an average rating of 2.80, a 5 percent increase over the title game's 2.67 in 2010.
So why now?
"I think that's a fair point, but when you're looking at something of this nature, you're not looking short term, you're looking long term," Donohoe said. "I think the committee wants to look at the future and what are some sustainable opportunities for growth."
Changing the basketball calendar won't be the only complication if the new dates are eventually approved.
There are contracts for conference tournaments and Final Fours, which have been awarded through 2016, to deal with, too.
"It may be the biggest jigsaw puzzle of putting all the pieces together," Donohoe said. "Fortunately, we built in the ability to change dates up to so many months out, but I don't know that our conferences have that sort of contractual obligations built into their contracts."
The committee also said it will change the announcement dates for future host sites.
Sites for the 2013 first and second-round games and regional sites will be announced next spring. Previously, those decisions were made about 18 months before the tourney.