DALLAS (AP) — There were a lot of empty seats at the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament regionals.
The NCAA saw its lowest attendance for the regionals in 20 years, and there is no change to the format in sight.
An average of 4,719 fans showed up for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in the four neutral-site venues. That's down 27 percent from last year and nearly 50 percent from 2014, when the games were played on campus sites. In 1997, an average of 4,252 fans came to the regionals.
This year's numbers were bolstered by the Bridgeport Regional, which sold out both days UConn played there. No other site had a local team playing.
"We continue to work as hard as possible to support strong attendance at regional sites," said Anucha Browne, the NCAA vice president for women's basketball. "The challenge is taking some great teams that have real strong attendance on campuses and move them across the country that their fans can travel with them. It's not a logical approach to grow our game."
The Stockton Regional had three East Coast teams play in it, along with Oregon State. South Carolina and Florida State met in the final Monday night with only 3,134 fans in attendance. The Gamecocks have led the NCAA in home attendance the past few years, drawing an average of 12,277 fans this season. However, few wanted to make the cross-country trip to California.
Oklahoma City had a strong matchup, with Baylor facing Mississippi State — the top two teams in the region. Yet only 3,128 fans attended Sunday night's game. Lexington was even worse, with 2,527 fans coming to see Notre Dame face Stanford.
"We have a unique situation that needs to be handled," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I'm not saying I know what all the answers are, but there's certain places in America that there's a lot of really good women's basketball fans, and there's a lot of places that it's not. So to put regionals in those places doesn't make any sense."
The numbers aren't all bad. The attendance at the first two rounds of the NCAAs was the third highest in the last 10 years. The Final Four and championship game in Dallas are virtually sold out for the first time since 2014. Moving the Final Four to a Friday-Sunday format this year for the first time since 2002 helped that.
The NCAA already has awarded next year's regionals to Albany, Kansas City, Spokane and Lexington. The 2019 and 2020 sites will be announced next month, and Browne said they, too, will be at neutral venues.
"In the future, if we want to reconsider having a regional played on campus sites and all rounds of our championships outside of the Final Four, that's something we'll have to continue to track," she said.
Browne would be in favor of schools hosting the regionals again. In 2014, the regionals averaged more than 9,000 fans.
"The data points say that women's basketball is best served on campus sites for first two rounds and regionals," Browne said. "We've seen it. Our student-athletes have advocated for it. If we really want to support a great environment for them to play their championships, that's the best option right now."
Coaches are strongly against reverting to campus sites.
"Neutral-site regionals are something our coaches believe in because of competitive equity," said Danielle Donehew, executive director of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "They don't want to play on someone else's home court."
There are hotbeds for women's basketball that could be good regional sites. Greenville, South Carolina, hosted the women's SEC Tournament and the men's NCAA opening rounds. Seattle has done a great job with the Pac-12 Tournament the last few years.
The NCAA polled its membership at the end of last year and found it overwhelming supported not changing anything in the NCAA Tournament. That potentially rules out super regionals or putting all 16 teams in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas movement has gained steam lately even though the NCAA doesn't allow championships to be played there.
"There's no need to talk about Vegas because we can't host our championship in Vegas," Browne said. "Not sure why that continues to become a discussion point."
Donehew went to Las Vegas in December to talk to the group interested in hosting.
"I was impressed with their commitment to the sport and level of facilities and amenities they could offer," she said. "From the WBCA perspective we do feel that Las Vegas, if it's allowed to be in the conversation, we do feel they are worthy of consideration. That's where our role stops and the women's committee and oversight committee begins. They are the ones who do a great job in selecting our sites."
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