Gold: Forget Kentucky vs. Gonzaga, the college hoops game of the weekend is up in Palo Alto
With all due respect to John Calipari and Mark Few, the best college basketball game this weekend isn’t up in Spokane but in Palo Alto on Sunday, when the top two women’s teams in the country square off in a nationally televised matchup.
No. 1 South Carolina heads to No. 2 Stanford’s Maples Pavilion for a rematch of last year’s 65-61 Gamecocks win in front of 13,070 fans at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia. The last two NCAA champions — the Cardinal in 2021, the Gamecocks earlier this year — will square off in front of an ABC audience in a rare feat for the women’s game, which regularly had a home on broadcast television in the ’80s and early 1990s, before the game was mostly found on ESPN. Last year’s NCAA Tournament title game was broadcast on ABC, the first time the game had been on broadcast television since 1995.
“It’s extremely important, being on a network, having this on ABC,” Stanford star Haley Jones told me. “Having a No. 1 vs. No. 2 early in the season is spectacular. You rarely see a 1 vs. 2 this early, or really any time in a season, men’s or women’s. The Stanford and South Carolina rivalry has been on the rise, and there are a lot of storylines behind it, high-level basketball.”
For Stanford supporters more local to Palo Alto, they’ve got another reason to sign up for a W Pass, one of the most innovative ticketing packages to come to college sports in some time.
The W pass was conceived of by the Stanford athletic department but implemented by FanRally, a ticketing subscription membership platform co-founded by former Oakland A’s chief operations officer Chris Giles. The package allows Cardinal fans the ability to go to any women’s sporting event on campus. Giles describes the idea of someone who pays country club dues, allowing them the ability to schedule tee times.
“(Stanford is) targeting a new, more modern consumer,” Giles told Saturday Out West. “It used to be that in order to be a viable candidate for a membership product, you had to have the desire to go to every single event of a single sport. As someone who is raising a daughter in the Bay Area, I want to take her to a bunch of different sports. I might not be so into women’s basketball that I buy a season ticket. But to be able to take her to a few volleyball games, a few basketball games, a few softball games, now that makes sense.”
It particularly makes sense on a campus like Stanford’s, where women’s sports teams are competing for national recognition almost across the board.
“I think the concept is really special,” Jones said. “Having a women’s package to go beyond the sports that get broadcasted – volleyball, soccer, basketball – that’s so important. There are a lot of amazing athletes here, national championship teams that aren’t broadcast as they should be. I’m in school with Olympians who barely get any coverage. It’s really important to give them the love they deserve, which they so rarely get from the media and TV. I’m not surprised Stanford is one of those schools who have a package like this.”
Getting more fans in the seats and even watching from their own couches has been the side mission of every great coach in the women’s game.
Earlier this year, I was on the phone with Geno Auriemma, talking about the rise of women’s basketball a half-century after the passing of Title IX, when he told me something that surprised me.
Of all the iconic matchups that his UConn Huskies have played in, all the championship games and Final Fours, it was a regular-season game in 1995 that serves as the most meaningful game in program history to the legendary coach.
When No. 1 Tennessee and No. 2 Connecticut met on Jan. 16, 1995, in Storrs, Connecticut, it was one of the pivotal moments in women’s sports history. ESPN executive Carl Stiff had conceived of scheduling the two best teams in the country in the middle of the regular season in a nationally televised matchup.
Stiff begged Summitt to travel to the bitter cold of Storrs on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for a 1 p.m. matchup in the middle of the SEC season. Summitt, whose biggest passion other than winning titles was helping to grow the women’s game, agreed. The game got a 1.0 rating, meaning one out of 100 households watching TV at the time were watching a women’s college basketball game.
“At 1 in the afternoon!” Stiff told me earlier this year. “You never saw that rating. It caught the attention, not only of ESPN, but of sports fans.”
For Auriemma, that 77-66 win – and the wins that followed in an undefeated 1995 season, capped off by the program’s first title – put UConn on the map. He called it Ali-Frazier, even if he attributes the success not to ESPN, but to another mass media publication.
“The biggest thing that helped us — and people talk about ESPN this and ESPN that and all that bullshit — that’s not what made us able to recruit everybody in the country,” Auriemma said. “There was a guy who was a former UConn student who now was writing for The New York Times, and he’d been writing for them for 40 years, and his name was Frank Litsky, and he came to a couple games covering the games. Next thing you know, he kept coming. If your game story is in The New York Times, they’re not just reading that in New York. They’re reading that in all parts of the world. That made us be able to say we can recruit a kid from California.”
Now, 27 years later, No. 1 will again travel to No. 2, with Dawn Staley visiting her old pal Tara VanDerveer in a heated matchup as interest in the women’s college game is soaring.
“I think that we’re all thinking this for the greater good of the game,” Staley told The Mercury News’ Alex Simon. “This generates a lot of publicity. It generates a lot of buzz. It puts us on a platform to be seen by the rest of women’s basketball teams, programs, fans, bands, and everybody that just enjoys watching basketball. I know everybody’s been in a football mode, but it kind of jump-shocks you, to know it’s basketball season, and there’s a space for the basketball enthusiast to see a quality basketball game.”
Jones hopes this game attracts new fans on campus, particularly non-basketball fans.
“We have so many national championship caliber programs on this campus; we fangirl over these different teams. We see them working day in, day out. They’re just not getting the love for it. I want people to come watch a sport they’ve never seen. With Title IX, we’ve made so much progress, but there’s so much room to grow. During our COVID season, we talked so much about being happy with what we have, and with Title IX, I am so grateful.
“But I’m not satisfied for the future generations to come after me. There’s still work to be done.”