Originally created 04/02/04

Big changes in store for Final Four teams



NEW ORLEANS - Dawn Staley remembers the games, of course. There also was a hospital visit to cheer up patients and a banquet.

That was 1991, the last time the women's Final Four was in New Orleans, when Staley won the MVP award for runner-up Virginia.

"That was old-school," said Staley, now the Temple coach. "We just laced them up and played the games. Now everything is much more fan-friendly. There are a lot more fans and a lot more for them to do."

The women's Final Four, once played in relative obscurity compared to the men's tournament, has enjoyed an increase in fans, TV ratings and talent.

Tennessee and Connecticut - two of the nation's most prominent programs - and LSU and Minnesota will play to full houses and on national television. The semifinals are Sunday and the title game is Tuesday.

Ratings for the four regional finals were the highest since ESPN began exclusive coverage of the tournament in 1996. So far for this tournament, the network's ratings are up 57 percent from last year.

In the 1991 Final Four, 15,796 fans attended the two sessions. About 8,500 fans were at the championship game. That impressed Ron Maestri, then the athletic director at the University of New Orleans, where the games were played.

This year, the event will be in the New Orleans Arena, where all 18,000 seats have been sold out since last year. Next door in the Superdome, Hoop City, the 166,000-square-foot interactive display of games and basketball activities will hold even more fans than the games.

Last year, a sellout crowd of 28,210 people attended the championship at the Georgia Dome. The year before, 29,619 spectators - the largest for the tournament - were at the Alamo Dome.

The women could have played in the Superdome this year, as the men did in last year's Final Four with a crowd of 54,524 fans. But they chose the smaller arena, even though it would cut attendance to the smallest crowd since 1998.

The Arena, home of the NBA's Hornets, was designed for basketball, and Maestri thinks that will help the women.

The women's Final Four switched its schedule last year, moving the championship game from Sunday to Tuesday, which the NCAA and ESPN hoped would allow for better cross-promotion with the men's tournament.

Although the gross receipts jumped by about $1 million a year between 2000 and 2003, they dropped by about $200,000 last year. That was because the TV money from ESPN is no longer figured into the women's basketball tournament revenue.

The network pays the NCAA to cover 21 tournaments, with women's basketball included.

"The women's tournament is growing rapidly," NCAA spokesman Scottie Rodgers said. "We don't have a projection on when it will begin earning money, but we're confident it will."