November 15, 2009 12:04:00 AM
Women''s basketball fans can rejoice.
ESPN and its family of networks will kick off a schedule of 250 women''s basketball games at 4 p.m. today (ESPN2) when Baylor plays at Tennessee in the State Farm Tip-Off Classic.
The game will be the first of a season filled with women''s basketball on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN360.com and ESPN Full Court.
The schedule will be the biggest ever by the family of networks.
For some, the slate will be 249 more games than needed, but Carol Stiff, ESPN senior director of programming and acquisition, said the network remains invested in a sport that she believes is healthy and growing.
"There is plenty of talent that we''re cultivating up through the ranks," Stiff said earlier this week in a teleconference. "The fact that the players are with us for four years gives us great storylines (for analysts like Kara Lawson and Carolyn Peck) to tell. ... I think we''re taking all of the steps we can to women''s game and to make this game a great game for years to come."
Women''s basketball still will be without its marquee matchup -- Connecticut vs. Tennessee -- but there will be plenty of powerful games this season because the parity in the sport is on the rise.
The network''s presence is growing with the parity. The network will feature its first Women''s College GameDay on Jan. 16, 2009 for the Connecticut-Notre Dame game in Storrs, Conn.
The family of networks also will remain the home for the NCAA tournament. Its biggest job will be to try to broaden the women''s basketball fan''s scope of vision past the likes of Tennessee, Connecticut, Stanford, Rutgers, and North Carolina, just to name a few of the more popular and name-brand programs.
Programs like Mississippi State can help in that area. As a member of the Southeastern Conference, the Lady Bulldogs will benefit from the league''s status as one of the best in the nation. MSU can help prove it belongs in the national conversation this season when it plays host to Atlantic Coast Conference power Maryland at 2 p.m. on Nov. 22.
Maryland won the national championship in 2006 and will feature a young team that is trying to reload after losing seniors Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman. The game is just one in a host of challenging non-conference games for the Lady Bulldogs.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis hopes the Lady Bulldogs can build on the momentum of last season when they went 23-10 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament and pack Humphrey Coliseum for Maryland.
"We want to have the largest non-conference crowd that we have ever had," Fanning-Otis said. "I wish we could just break a record for all games. We have to do our job. We need to do a really good job with our first three games."
MSU''s biggest crowd all-time is 6,055 for LSU on Feb. 9, 2003.
A victory today against East Tennessee State and another win Wednesday against Utah Valley State would put MSU at 3-0 heading into its first national test of the season.
Even though ESPN won''t broadcast the MSU-Maryland game, it will attempt to build storylines and interest in a sport that continues to strive to be more than a niche sport. There are plenty of pockets of intense interest, but a bigger television presence could help the sport expand its fan base outside of the hotbeds of Storrs, Conn., and Knoxville, Tenn.
Stiff believes women''s basketball has plenty of things going for it and has plenty of room to grow if it is handled the right way.
"As long as we can continue to brand women''s basketball equally to men''s basketball as basketball it is a step in the right direction," Stiff said. "We have to keep showcasing the game for what it offers to people, and we believe in the game and that it is compelling basketball."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.