Stanford vs. UConn Gets Short Shrift From ESPN Networks

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Is it a slap to the face of women's college basketball that the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown between Stanford and UConn ended up being relegated to ESPNU?

Sure it is. Then again, the game has clanged enough layups that many sports fans might argue that women's basketball is lucky that it is on national television at all.

The good folks in Bristol love to point out that these aren't the good old days of, oh, 2006, and that ESPNU is now available on 73 million or so homes. Still, isn't it fair to ask? Because so many football bowl and men's basketball games already are on the ESPN and ESPN2 lineup this Saturday and every Saturday, and because ESPN/ABC clearly dominates the college sports landscape with its billions of dollars of inventory, isn't the Worldwide Leader also is in position to spread the wealth when No. 1 plays No. 2?

"If they are NFL games, then I understand," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "But if they're not NFL games and it's two bowl games among the other 56 bowl games or however many there are … I guess the TV people have already done their homework and have come to a conclusion that some 6-6 team from one part of the country playing another 6-6 team from another part of the country is probably a great game and great for the fans."

Let's be honest. This Saturday on ESPN and ESPN2 isn't exactly boffo box office. On ESPN, Stanford-UConn got beat out by the Armed Forces Bowl between unranked Rice [6-6] and Air Force [6-6]. It got beat out by the Pinstripe Bowl between unranked West Virginia [7-5] and Syracuse [7-5]. It got beat out by the Alamo Bowl between Oregon State and Texas. OK, that last game is a legit nighttime draw.

Over on ESPN2, however, UConn and Stanford got beat out by No. 20 UNLV and unranked North Carolina in basketball, the Fight Hunger Bowl between unranked Navy and Arizona State and — get this — by the UConn men-Washington game at 7:30 p.m. Look, Huskies vs. Huskies is a nice game, but really. ESPN sent along word Friday that previous commitments already were made to the live bowls. Of course, they were. Look, I don't want this to devolve into an argument over scheduling logistics with the Big Guy Down The Street, because the guy who makes the schedule always has one more answer than the guy questioning the logistics.

This is a broader debate — one that ESPN and everybody else involved in women's basketball should be open to. Yes, you can argue that Baylor is the real No. 1. But last summer when things were scheduled, everybody knew who the top three teams in women's basketball were. Everybody knew the possibilities, including Stanford, which is hosting a women's-men's doubleheader Saturday. It's too bad the possibility of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game wasn't deemed important enough to have this game on the biggest possible platform — whatever it took.

"That's the battle we fight all the time," Auriemma said. "That's the battle that women's sports in general fight. I don't know how you can win the battle other than play some great games, play a game on Saturday that everybody says they wished that more people had seen. From our standpoint as coaches and players, we've always got to be careful about what we say about media coverage. We get bombarded on both sides; 'You're lucky to get the coverage you get,' while others say Stanford-UConn should be on instead of the [theoretically] Packers-Patriots playoff game. You get people think that game should supersede any game and you get others saying why are they even on television."

That's true. But when you run No. 1 vs. No. 2 up the flagpole and it isn't saluted as big time, well, it's kind of embarrassing for the sport. And it makes you think. So many of the BCS powerhouses throw huge football money at women's basketball programs and their coaches because of Title IX and because it is the one women's sport that potentially can be self-sustaining. So why wouldn't they push for the elite games to get the biggest stage possible?

It makes you wonder. If schools don't see returns over time, how will they react? And it makes you wonder. If ESPN is so loaded with inventory, are they, well, overloaded? With NBC Sports and some other entities gathering on the national horizon, could some competition with time slots to fill eventually give a greater platform?

"We've just got to go our there and put the best product we can on the court," Auriemma said. "So maybe the next one, whenever that one is — that's for you guys to champion. I've already made enough comments about it that come back to haunt you."

This brings us directly back to a few months ago when Auriemma forwarded the idea of lowering the rims six or seven inches for the women's game. His words exploded into a national debate. The rest of what he said about the 10-second backcourt line, about the shot clock, etc., was lost in the sexiness of the media-created battle of the sexes. Too bad, because what Auriemma was trying to do was engender debate on ways to improve the women's game offensively and gradually attract more interest.

With the two maestros of women's college basketball offense matching wits in Tara VanDerveer and Auriemma, with the smartest, most creative players in the nation, wouldn't this have been the perfect day for ESPN to debate this all in front of its biggest possible national audience? Wouldn't this have been the perfect day to have brought in their experts to debate Auriemma's ideas, maybe show some results of their own trials with a lower rim, maybe have someone like Rebecca Lobo and Kara Lawson demonstrate the possibilities. I'd argue that it would have elevated the sport. I'd argue that ESPN and women's basketball missed a chance here. I really do.

"[UConn and Stanford] have a huge advantage over other programs in that we can go out and get the best offensive players in the country," Auriemma said. "There are teams out there that can't. So they build their teams around defense, because they're not skilled enough on the offensive end. More teams, I think, have to value putting the ball in the basket."

"Women's basketball has to be played differently than men's basketball. That's why I always laugh when people who run women's basketball want to showcase the physicality. I don't know that serves any purpose. What you want to showcase is people putting the ball in the basket. I think that's what makes the game enjoyable to watch. You've got maybe the two best offensive teams in the country. That's not to say we're going to see who can win 110-109. We're both really, really good defensive teams, too. We wouldn't be in that many Finals Fours if we weren't. But I'd like to think we try to make scoring and scoring often a priority. That's probably why we attract so many fans. That is why it's become such a great rivalry."

A rivalry that is given less of a national presence than the UConn men's game against Washington at the XL Center … and don't tell me that ESPNU is the equal of ESPN or ESPN2.

CHICAGO