It's Still Growing as a Game : Basketball: In some areas, the women's college version has a major impact. In others, it is still basically an unknown.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three cities, three scenes, three slices of life in women's college basketball, toddling as it is out of NCAA infancy and into the sometimes unstable, often insecure pre-teen stage:

--College Park, Md. There are 14,500 jammed into every nook and cranny of Cole Field House on Feb. 11. They are yelling at a fever pitch during the game, featuring No. 1 ranked Maryland against No. 2 Virginia.

"There were more like 17,000 actually in that gym," Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan said.

Virginia defeated Maryland, 75-74. Even though Maryland missed a last-second shot, the crowd still gave both teams a long standing ovation.

Maryland Coach Chris Weller grabbed the courtside microphone and thanked the crowd for its support. The game led the evening news and the sports sections of the next day's Washington Post and Baltimore Sun.

--Westwood. There is a traffic jam on the streets leading to UCLA. There is a first-round NCAA game between Notre Dame and UCLA.

Which leads to this exchange at the will-call window.

Reporter: "Looks like a good crowd for this game."

Ticket seller: "What?"

The reporter is asking, "What?" upon entering nearly empty Pauley Pavilion. Maybe the stream of cars was heading toward a fraternity party to celebrate the end of exams.

The announced crowd at Pauley Pavilion is 441. It's by far the smallest turnout among the 16 first-round NCAA games. The next-smallest is 1,028 at Providence, R.I., for Toledo-Providence.

After UCLA defeats Notre Dame, 93-72, a fan yells: "At least the UCLA women can beat Notre Dame!"

Most of the 441 there probably heard that comment.

--Seattle, Wash. The Washington women's program is a major player in a major league market, keeping pace with the SuperSonics, the Seahawks and the Mariners.

For the last three seasons, the Washington women have outdrawn the men. Chris Gobrecht is almost as visible a figure in Seattle as is any other coach, slightly behind Husky football Coach Don James and former Seahawk Coach Chuck Knox.

She is second-guessed on radio call-in shows and in all three major area newspapers. Women's basketball is on the front sports pages and has three traveling writers.

Last season, Washington had eight crowds of more than 4,000, setting a school record for women's basketball home attendance with a 57,525 total and a 4,109 average. That put the Huskies at No. 3 in attendance in the country behind Texas, with a 6,161 average, and Tennessee, at 4,738.

Fans were there this season, despite a sub-par team. Washington, 17-11 and failing to reach the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 1984, had an average home attendance of 3,648.

Which scenario most accurately reflects the standing of women's college basketball?

None of them.

The success in Seattle is still an anomaly, because it concerns a team in a big-city market. And for all the hoopla surrounding the Maryland-Virginia game, there was the same atmosphere more than a decade ago, when Nancy Lieberman and Carol Blazejowksi first seized the spotlight. Even before the NCAA took over women's basketball, there were occasional great crowds.

In 1977, for instance, 12,336 attended a women's doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. Now, 15 years later, some are getting excited about a slightly larger crowd in another metro area, saying it is not merely a blip on the screen.

But the evidence doesn't back that up. The sport is still growing--faster at up-and-coming schools such as Texas Tech in Lubbock and Southwest Missouri State in Springfield--but interest still is developing ever so slowly nationally.

Women's tournament scores--let alone highlights--are almost never shown on national television, cable or network. Local radio and television stations in major cities rarely mention women's scores, except during the NCAA tournament.

That frustration hit Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer especially hard this season. And the No. 3-ranked Cardinal generally receives strong coverage from several Bay Area newspapers during the regular season and NCAA tournament.

"It's hard for me and frustrating for our boosters," she said. "There's a huge disparity between our tournament and the men's. The day after the NCAA field was announced, a local radio station in the Bay Area said that only one team made the tournament.

"I said, 'Excuse me, there were four in the tournament. The Stanford men, the Stanford women and the Cal and Santa Clara women.' "

Women's basketball is finding it difficult to draw television viewers. Last year's Virginia-Tennessee final drew a lower television rating--5.2, the third-lowest in the 10-year history--than in 1982, the first season of the NCAA women's event.

Still, that was a 41% increase compared to the 1990 game, the 3.7 rating for which was the all-time lowest. And everyone is fond of pointing out that the ratings went up 6% for the three regular-season games CBS televised this season. But that means a jump from 1.6 to 1.7.

Those games were shown as part of CBS' larger agreement with the NCAA, which gives the network exclusive television rights to the men's tournament, but also commits it to carry at least three women's regular-season games and the women's Final Four.

Brian Fielding, director of programming for CBS sports, said it would "probably not" carry the women's regular-season games if it were not obligated to do so under its NCAA contract.

"It's not that attractive a package standing on its own," he said. "It's not a tremendous ratings bonanza, but that's not to say it's not good programming."

The importance of television to women's basketball cannot be underestimated. Why else would the sport bow to television's wishes and consent to a 9:30 a.m. start for Saturday's first semifinal? Or play the final two rounds on consecutive days?

Coach Gary Blair of Stephen F. Austin says that additional television exposure can help the smaller schools keep pace with the national powers.

"Give us a television camera and we will give you a good show," he said.

Oddly enough, the smaller schools ended up dragging the larger ones into a more significant commitment to women's basketball.

"We've all forced each other to get better," said Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt. "It started with the smaller schools, Immaculata, Delta State, Old Dominion.

"Then the ACC, the SEC, the Big Ten all found themselves saying, 'What are you going to do in women's basketball?' It started with the small schools, and it really filtered throughout the country and in a contagious way."

Said Blair: "Now you do not know who is going to be in the Final Four. Who is going to be the Cinderella team this year? And I think that's good for women's basketball."

Also more encouraging for the NCAA are attendance figures this season. With its No. 1 ranking, Virginia has shown significant improvement at the gate. This season, the Cavaliers averaged 5,858, up from last season's average of 3,861.

They also had a hand in two other attendance records. Virginia set an East Regional record of 8,185 at its semifinal game against West Virginia and broke that by drawing 8,715 for the final. And the 14,500 fans at the Maryland game were an Atlantic Coast Conference record.

This season, the first-round figures for the NCAA tournament were 47,097, an increase of 12,415 compared to last season. The second-round was 78,172, up 15,716, and the regional attendance was 42,614, up 14,024.

But the sport hasn't progressed to where the tournament games are played at neutral sites, as they are in the men's tournament. For instance, Virginia played three consecutive tournament games on its home court. Purdue played two consecutive games at home.

"The home-court advantage doesn't concern me greatly," Summitt said. "But until we can establish the fan support, we can't move to the next level, the neutral sites. I hope the game will advance to where we can get to the neutral sites, but that may be four to five years away."

Times staff writer Steven Herbert contributed to this story.

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