Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Guru College Musings: Of NCAA Media Decline and WNBA Calm Draft Winds

By Mel Greenberg

PHILADELPHIA --
In most areas the Women’s Final Four was a success as an event with the games for the most part providing excitement and the Denver folks, including the Mountain West Conference from nearby Colorado Springs, doing an outstanding job as the official hosts.

However, in terms of media coverage, a historic shift hit ground zero in one area that has been declining in recent seasons because of the downsizing and cost-cutting of newspapers across the nation.

With the absence of the Washington Post sending anyone, it is the first time that from a group of what was once several hundred, there wasn’t one publication on the seating/credential list that was in the house at the Pepsi Center without regard to the four participating teams or devoid of being regionally located in terms of the event being in Denver.

Furthermore, while in many situations the drumbeat has continued over how papers have to be selective in terms of travel/expense in all their news and entertainment sections beside the sports pages, based on the Guru’s glance at the charts, something he has been doing since the industry went into a nose dive, none of the aforementioned print sections took the freelance route in which they could use any of a decent sized talent group of journalists to pay for just the coverage without regard to expenses.

USA Today was there but they are a national publication, and though the organization has ongoing financial aches and pains, it doesn’t fit the category of the count and thus is exempt.

Jere Longman of the New York Times was there, but he still has a little influence in showing up and the paper has a somewhat vested interest, regionally, in covering both the University of Connecticut men and women.

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, it can be noted that many of the ongoing regulars, no longer at the place they used to work, have managed to survive, some working for online publications, but the cities they once represented were no longer on the list.

For example, Mechelle Veopel is now with ESPN.com and its ESPN-W online presence, but her former publication the Kansas City Star, was off the list.

Likewise Wendy Parker, on the board as the new media representative of the United States Basketball Writers Association, as well as a contributor to Basketball Times and Blue Star Media, was hard at work in the wee hours, as always, but the Atlanta Constitution, which she once represented, was also off the list.

Michelle Smith is now with ESPN, also, though because of Stanford advancing for the fifth straight year, some of the Bay Area papers out of San Francisco were in Denver, but most also quickly pulled their staffs back after the Cardinal lost to Baylor in the semifinals.

Likewise, the UConn group, whose ongoing appearances thanks to the Huskies dominating presence, helped stabilize the NCAA credential count at 500 plus, were also on the way back East once the team lost to its Big East rival Notre Dame in the semifinals.

In some cases, such as the situation of the Hartford Courant’s UConn women’s beat writer John Altavilla, he remained because his story on the national title game could be distributed to other papers in the same chain as the Courant.

It should be noted that Boston Globe wasn’t on the scene, either, though in later years its appearance jived with UConn, specific, and not the Women’s Final Four.

Occasionally, if their teams didn’t make it, Knoxville and papers from Charlottesville (Va.), and Raleigh and Durham (N.C.) might be on hand.

Indianapolis, the home of NCAA headquarters, also did not staff, nor did Louisiana (including Baton Rouge), which contains next year’s host city New Orleans.

If Baylor had not made it or any of the Texas schools out of the Big 12, the press out of the Lone Star state would also have been on the list of departed, whereas in old times, Dallas was a regular without regard to participating teams.

Some other prominent cities and their immediate environs also no longer on the scene included Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Richmond, and Philadelphia.

In naming the City of Brotherly Love, because of the Guru’s longtime affiliation before going the “retirement” route two years ago this month, the point is made only in terms of the survey and not as a personal shot.

In fact, the Guru was called on more than several times for freelance help, most recently when he was in Kingston, R.I., when the Penn State/UConn regional semifinal final offered an angle of local interest.

And actually, the weekly local notebook during the season on women’s teams in the Big Five and Drexel was something that couldn’t be achieved his last two years while still on active duty, though it should be noted a different management structure existed in sports at the time.

Though someone mentioned Eastern cities would have been on hand if the event was on the Atlantic seaboard in the Middle Atlantic states, then those print publications wouldn’t count because they would be region-specific, while the Denver press would have not been in the arena.

Beyond the college scene, on the eve of another WNBA season, it will be interesting to see how much coverage beyond the 12 franchise cities the pro league gets in terms of newspapers in light of this being an Olympic year.

However, many papers are also scaling back sending representatives to the Summer Games, which will be in London and elsewhere in England, because of costs.

That said, coverage itself has actually gotten better, but the delivery has changed.

Before noting the shift, the Guru would like to point out that one saving grace for papers that are not staffing the NCAA women’s tournament finals, specifically, as in the past, has been the quality of coverage from Doug Feinberg, who succeeded Chuck Schoffner several years ago as the Associated Press national women’s writer.

In fact, Doug, who will be with the U.S. women’s basketball team in London, has been able to initiate story ideas without much resistance, though like many of us, he knows how to pick his spots.

The only downside, papers using Feinberg’s work are free to chop his stories to fit the layout, though online publications such as Yahoo usually use his work in its entirety as it appeared on the AP transmission report.

But getting back to the shift in delivery of coverage, although the Guru just mentioned how much of the past media presence has vanished, coverage has gotten better to the point that, except for the generation still challenged by the computer age, there are other places to go for enhancement beyond what appears in the major city dailies.

ESPN, aside from being the principal broadcast partner on the NCAA women’s tournament, had an army on the scene to handle both its online and broadcast coverage.

The NCAA, itself, had all kind of bells and whistles during the games, though it would be nice at some point for the organization to get together with ESPN and offer the same kind of coverage on an iPad, iPhone and Android apps as it does with CBS during the men’s tournament.

Last summer the WNBA’s rebuilt apps was a major factor in an exploding online stream of traffic.

Of course tweeting offered opinions throughout from the experts, to coaches, to the teams, themselves.

ESPN-W recently added former Philadelphia Inquirer staffer Kate Fagan, who had been the NBA 76ers writer, but adds expertise as a former player at Colorado when the Buffaloes were a national power.

Such main online entities as Hoopfeed and Fullcourt had staffs credentialed, which several years ago would have been a no-no before the NCAA realized, with some support from the traditional members of the women’s press corps, that these organizations were needed to replace coverage that used to come from the dwindling print dailies who showed up annually.

Despite the ground zero reference the Guru made at the outset in terms of which print organizations still show up, or not, the final chapter has yet to be written.

Some print organizations may actually re-deploy and send representatives to cover for their online adjuncts, which may soon be their only form of delivery.

Next year, however, the Women’s Final Four returns to New Orleans, the third time it will be held in the Crescent City, whose local flavor often causes events aside from the games to become, let’s say, different from their traditional course.

The Guru, for example, in giving out the WBCA media award in 2004 remembers after a week in which Bourbon Street establishments were filled with patrons using their communication devices as walkie-talkies, asking the throng at the awards luncheon: “How many of you were here in 1991?”

A significant show of hands went up, to which the Guru then asked, “How did you get through the week without cell phones?”

WNBA Draft Winds Less Than Gusty

On Monday, a day, incidentally, the Guru hits a significant milestone, the annual WNBA draft will be held for the second straight year at ESPN’s headquarters.

This will be remembered as the Nneka Oguwmike draft, though as talented as the Stanford star may be, it may not as trademarked as the Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson or Candace Parker drafts, which still had more than decent value beyond those No. 1 picks in past seasons.

If American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein was alive today and she was a WNBA beat writer, she might say the same of Monday’s three-round overall extravaganza in Bristol, Conn., as she once said of Oakland, Calif.: There’s no there there.

That doesn’t mean the mega-security patrols that guard what once was a simple two-building complex at the sports media giant won’t be out in force, even while there’s little that will need to be handled in terms of the cycle of rotating activities throughout the main center.

As evidenced on this week’s noteworthy pre-draft teleconference involving ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo and Carolyn Peck, several WNBA coaches, besides a few expected high picks, in discussing this year’s selections, the phrase “Next Year” quickly comes into the conversation with an eye to the mega-talents of Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne, and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, who will have concluded their collegiate careers along with a bunch more of stars with superior talent.

Beck and Lobo quickly noted how tough it is to make a WNBA 11-player roster and with most picks on Monday being characterized as investments to the future, the impact of most new arrivals this time may be more of a ripple than an implosion on the status quo.

As it is, because the season will screech quickly to a halt almost as fast as it gets under way because of the break for the Olympics, there may not be much interest in the conference races until after the games are concluded, hopefully with the U.S. holding more gold medals.

Not counting foreign players, such as second-year pro Liz Cambage on Tulsa, who will be gone the front part of the summer as will sister Australian Lauren Jackson from Seattle, when it comes to the American side, once the break begins, here are the WNBA teams, whose players, without getting into names, will be performing extra duty in London:

Defending champion Minnesota will be contributing three players; the Chicago Sky will offer two, while Phoenix, Seattle, Connecticut, Indiana, Los Angeles and Atlanta will offer one each. A collegian, Baylor’s Griner, is expected to be the 12th and final player, barring replacements for injury.

Four teams with no American representatives are Tulsa, New York, San Antonio, and Washington.

Of the nine players who didn’t make the cut from the finalist list of 21, the following have been consigned to community service with their WNBA teams while the American and foreigners are overseas:

Connecticut (3), Asjha Jones, Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery; San Antonio (2) Jayne Appel, Sophia Young; Phoenix (1) Candice Dupree; Atlanta (1) Lindsay Harding; Minnesota (1) Rebekkah Brunson; and New York (1) Cappie Pondexter.

And when everyone is back in the fold, attention is going to be paid as much to the bottom of the race as the top in terms of who will be in the hunt for the four lottery picks by not making the playoffs.

In fact, and the Guru will save the key “lotto playoffs” September schedule dates for the near future, if your team is right on the edge for the last spots as New York and Washington are expected to be in the East; and Tulsa, San Antonio, Phoenix and possibly Seattle are in the West; knowing what prizes await the lotto winners next year, do you cheer for your team to win or lose as the regular season concludes?

Hold those thoughts for now or for tweeting reaction and message boards.

Otherwise, the next post here will be along soon enough.

-- Mel

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