Dawn Staley didn’t hold back her frustration Monday night when it came out that her South Carolina women’s basketball team would play in the Albany region of the NCAA tournament, marking the third consecutive year the Gamecocks will have had to travel far from home to reach the Final Four.
“If the NCAA talks about putting people in the seats, we’ve done that. We’ve done that for four years. And we’ve only been to a place in which our fans can drive once. We just have to rethink as a committee what’s important, because what they tell us is important is attendance,” Staley vented.
And USC’s head coach was hardly alone — on social media, fans of the program were quick to express their outrage and disapproval of the move, which will send the Gamecocks more than 800 miles from Columbia.
According to one college basketball analyst, however, the answer to South Carolina’s, and the selection committee’s, problem is located more than 2,100 miles from Colonial Life Arena.
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If you follow Debbie Antonelli, a frequent commentator on ESPN, CBS and Fox, on Twitter, you’ve likely seen the hashtag #Sweet16ToVegas in your timeline at some point. It’s not about a teenager’s birthday party in Nevada. It’s her idea to fundamentally change the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Antonelli’s plan is simple: The four separate regionals in the tourney, which take place after the opening two rounds and rotate around the country on a yearly basis, should be done away with. In their place, the 16 teams that emerge from the first two rounds, held at the top seeds’ campuses, should all go to Las Vegas, every year, and play at least the next two rounds, possibly all of the tournament, there instead.
“I'm very passionate about this because I think it's going to help our game 10, 15 years down the road,” Antonelli said.
In Antonelli’s view, the switch would be better for everyone involved — the coaches, the players, the fans, the media and women’s basketball as a whole.
From a competitive standpoint, Antonelli says, centralizing the latter half of the tournament in Las Vegas would get rid of the travel and regional advantages that currently matter so much to the selection committee by simply making it the same for everyone.
“The G curve is what I call it, it's the geography curve,” Antonelli explained. “So unfortunately for South Carolina, Notre Dame weighted heavier than them and got sent to Lexington (in 2016 and 2017). Now if you look at the distance between the two, it's not a big deal, right? From South Bend to Lexington, Columbia to Lexington, it's not that much of a difference. However, Notre Dame weighted higher. … If you're going to put one Sweet 16 together under one roof and one site, then I think you make a fairer claim for neutrality, and you don't have to worry about the geography.”
For fans, Antonielli says Las Vegas would be better than the status quo because as is, supporters have to wait for months before knowing to which town or city their team is going. If the location was fixed and in a “destination city,” as Antonelli puts it, they could plan ahead.
“If you're a South Carolina fan and you've got the choice between going to Spokane or going to Vegas, if you can't bus anyway, where would you rather go, if all 16 teams are there?” Antonelli asked. “If fans knew they had one destination city with a package, with a hotel package, with an entertainment package, with a ticket package, that they could go to Vegas and you can right now plan your trip to spend a few days in Vegas, I think most fans would be interesting in doing that. ”
The idea is similar to structures already in place for NCAA baseball and softball, which hold the final rounds of their championships in Omaha and Oklahoma City every year, respectively, and both of which have enjoyed record attendance numbers in recent years.
For the NCAA, Las Vegas just makes financial sense, Antonelli argues.
Attendance at the regionals now are at their lowest levels in decades, even with No. 1 Connecticut consistently selling out one close to home. Right now, the women’s basketball tournament is one of the NCAA’s worst in terms of profit margins, with the regionals being one of the biggest reasons, Antonelli argues, half-jokingly wondering if the ticket revenue in Lexington over the past two years even paid for the hardwood court the NCAA installs with its logo on it.
“It doesn't make sense to me that we have these neutral sites where we've tried this model with four regionals, and it doesn't pay for itself,” she said.
Of course, there’s a big reason the NCAA has never come close to adopting the proposal, which Antonelli has been advocating for seven years — gambling. The organization does not allow its championships to be held in states where wagering on sports is legal.
And the solution to that problem would be to choose a different central location where the Sweet 16 could take place. But to hear Antonelli argue for it, gambling itself actually forms at least part of the appeal of Las Vegas.
“I think if we go to Vegas, we're taking our sporting event to the male sports bastion of March,” Antonell says. “If you look at the ESPN app today, you will see for tonight's men's games, you'll see a line for the games. We live inside a sports wagering culture.
“This is not about gambling. It's about having a choice. Gambling would be the last reason why I would say Vegas. However, the 18-to-34 year old male demographic, they care about that in the sports culture today, and we need to get on top of that. We can't stick our head in the sand.”
And Antonelli is also a firm believer that the NCAA’s bylaws regarding sports gambling are outdated and will soon be amended.
“Two years ago, (NCAA president) Mark Emmert went out to Vegas in March to watch the Pac-12 men’s tournament, and he came away quoting that there is hypocrisy in what we’re doing. So he himself admitted the hypocrisy of all these championships being held postseason, but the NCAA can’t host the NCAA championships there. … The desire for me to be proactive with the women’s basketball group, saying that this bylaw is going to pass. Eventually, it’s going to disappear. And when it does, we need to be ready.”
She's such a firm believer, in fact, that she has already worked closely with organizers in Las Vegas so that when the time comes, they'll be ready to spring into action. Marketers and promoters such as Pat Christenson, DJ Allen and Jim Livengood, the former athletic director at UNLV, have all been working on the concept for several years now.
"The concept of being able to have this celebration of women’s basketball at the same time each year and really making it a great experience for the student-athletes, a great experience for the fans, really intrigued those who were involved in this effort in Las Vegas," Allen said of his reaction the first time he heard Antonelli's pitch. "And being able to get this idea out there to those in women’s basketball, a lot of people saw the vision of it."
Antonelli, Allen and others have spoken with individuals involved with the NCAA, but until the NCAA bylaw is changed, they're barred from even having any official discussions with the organization about a formal bid, Allen said. That could change as soon as this spring or summer when the Supreme Court makes a ruling on the landmark case in which the NCAA sued the state of New Jersey to prevent it from legalizing sports gambling.
Allen said that like Antonelli, he is optimistic that the court will rule against the NCAA, opening up the floodgates and persuading the organization to give up its fight against legal wagering.
"It's definitely, we think, trending the right way," Allen said. "We definitely hope it is something that once the Supreme Court offers some clarity, the NCAA will revisit the opportunity for Nevada to have a chance to be involved. Not just to benefit us ... because Las Vegas is the events capital of the world, but to benefit the experience of the student-athlete and the fans."
However, even if the Supreme Court rules the way Antonelli and Allen hope and the NCAA does change its rules, it's not as though South Carolina fans should start booking tickets to Vegas in March right away. The NCAA awards regionals and Final Fours in rounds, and the Sweet 16 and championship sites for 2019 and 2020 are already locked in, while the finalists for the Final Four sites from 2021-2014 have been chosen. The next round of bidding is likely at least two years away, Allen said.
Still, Allen, like Antonelli, is taking a long-term approach. When the NCAA is ready, he says, Las Vegas wants to partner with it to develop a plan that works for everyone, which may include scrapping the regionals and continuing to rotate the Final Four on a yearly basis as long as it is financially successful.
Getting back to South Carolina, Dawn Staley was asked about proposals like Antonelli's shortly after she learned her team's region on Monday, and her response was pretty simple: Anything but we have now.
“I don’t really care how they format it. I just want them to get it right for teams and fans like ourselves,” she said.
If you ask Antonelli and Allen, Las Vegas does just that.