ESPN contract 'giant step' for women's hoops

As expected, ESPN and the NCAA announced a potential seven-year agreement for the network and its companion channel, ESPN2, to carry the women's basketball tournament and 18 other collegiate championships, including the men's lacrosse final, for up to seven years, starting with the 1995-96 academic year.

As part of the $19 million contract -- which runs for three years and includes four option years -- ESPN and ESPN2 will become the exclusive home of the women's tournament, carrying selected first- and second-round contests, all eight regional semifinals, the four regional finals and all three games of the Final Four.


"Anyone I talk to looks at this as a giant step forward for women's basketball," said Linda Bruno, commissioner of the Atlantic 10 and chair of the Division I women's basketball committee.

The dollar figure on yesterday's deal is a flyspeck of the $1.725 billion CBS paid to extend its contract for the men's basketball tournament through the year 2002, but the $2.7 million annual payment is nearly double the $1.5 million ESPN paid for its previous NCAA package.


In exchange for losing over-the-air exposure -- CBS had carried the title game since 1982, and the semifinals since 1991 -- the women's basketball committee was able to add a day between the national semifinals and final, something CBS, which will carry this season's Final Four, had refused to permit.

"The day of rest has been a major issue with our Division I coaches since its elimination in 1991. This provision will be very well-received by the women's basketball coaches community," Bentley College's Barbara Stevens, president of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, said in a prepared statement.

To make the women's package more sponsor-friendly to ESPN, the NCAA has agreed to help the network find advertisers for the women's tournament, which has drawn respectable, if not dominant, ratings for CBS, said NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey.

As a further concession, Bruno said the women's tournament would shift dates, where possible, to avoid conflicts with the men's tourney. The regional semifinals and finals, for instance, will run on a Saturday/Monday schedule, and the Final Four will be held in prime time on Friday/Sunday.

Besides men's lacrosse, ESPN has picked up the championships of Division I-AA football, Division I men's and women's swimming, men's and women's volleyball, wrestling, men's tennis and men's and women's indoor track, to add to its package that includes the Division II and III football finals, parts of the College World Series and the women's Division I soccer title game.

Basketball as religion?

With the onset of the college basketball season, ESPN has begun a series of promos that use well-known African-American spirituals as background to the pictures of dunks and screaming fans.

Diane Lamb, a network spokeswoman, said Wieden & Kennedy, the Portland, Ore., advertising firm that produced the spot, as well as last season's ESPN hockey promos and a number of Nike ads, used gospel music because it is "uplifting."


"They felt it captured the passion and fervor of college basketball. There was no malicious intent and certainly no offense was intended," said Lamb.

Still, the use of songs such as "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" and "Steal Away," music that many ESPN viewers might find sacred, seems insensitive. It might be best if the network went to the firm and asked it to come back with something a little more palatable and a lot less sacrilegious.