A couple of weeks after madness hit Albany, hype for its return is already starting.
Last month, sellout crowds at Albany’s MVP Arena turned out for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament’s first trip to the area since 2003. The countdown’s already on until the madness returns to South Pearl Street next year, when the women’s tournament descends on downtown Albany.
With women’s college basketball experiencing an all-time high in popularity coming off a 2023 tournament that set records for in-arena attendance and television ratings, the excitement’s already starting to brew nearly a year before the teams descend on the area.
“I don’t think there is a better time than now,” MVP Arena general manager Bob Belber said. “The amount of visibility that NCAA women’s basketball received this year was by far the greatest ever. I think more people watched the games that were broadcasted and, more importantly, more people watched the news and the matchups and the individual players that were so outstanding.”
Albany has played host to the women’s regionals three times in the past decade — in 2015, 2018 and 2019, all of which saw UConn advance to the Final Four. South Carolina, Louisville, Duke and Texas are among the power programs that have appeared at the downtown arena in previous tournaments.
Next year, however, the regional will be super-sized.
This year’s NCAA women’s tournament saw a switch in format from four sites to two for regional championship weekend, with each site getting eight teams instead of four.
Games will be held March 29 through April 1, with two games each on Friday and Saturday, then regional finals on Sunday and Monday. Siena and the MAAC will serve as hosts for the weekend, with the other super regional being held in Portland, Oregon.
“With the viewership and the marketing for women’s basketball coming to the Capital Region, which of course loves their basketball, it’s going to be really, really exciting,” UAlbany women’s basketball head coach Colleen Mullen said. “And, I anticipate a huge crowd.”
Fueled by stars like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, LSU’s Angel Reese and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, the women’s game is more popular than ever — and the numbers show it.
Last Sunday’s championship game between LSU and Iowa drew an average of 9.9 million viewers, crushing the previous record of 7.4 million for the 2002 national semifinal game between UConn and Tennessee, and shattered ESPN’s high-water mark of 5.68 million for the 2002 championship game between UConn and Oklahoma. The semifinal clash on March 31 pitting Clark and Iowa against then-undefeated South Carolina reached 5.5 million viewers, the largest-ever audience for a semifinal.
Not only was Iowa-LSU the most-watched women’s college basketball game in history, it drew a bigger audience in the US than any Stanley Cup Final game since 1973, the 2021 NBA Finals and the 2020 World Series.
“The numbers on TV are amazing,” Siena women’s basketball head coach Jim Jabir said. “They’re rivaling NFL games, NBA playoff games, and actually surpassing them.”
This year’s tournament also shattered the event’s all-time attendance record, with 357,542 fans streaming through the turnstiles over three weeks.
This was the second year the women’s tournament was able to use the “March Madness” branding that’s long been associated with the men’s edition, something Mullen believes has helped raise the tournament’s profile.
“Being on that stage and having it be so reflective of what was on the men’s side, it made it extra-special,” Mullen said.
With eight of the final 16 teams set to travel to Albany next year, it should mean a bevy of star-laden programs come to town.
That could include Clark, the 2023 national player of the year, who set NCAA tournament records for scoring and assists during Iowa’s championship game run. It could also mean Reese, who led coach Kim Mulkey’s LSU team to its first national title and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
UConn, which will get 2021 national player Paige Bueckers back next year after two injury-plagued seasons, is a definite candidate to be sent to one of the Albany regionals, as is 2022 national champion South Carolina.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Mullen said. “There’s so much excitement and enthusiasm around women’s basketball. This year, with Iowa and Caitlin Clark, and Aliyah Boston and South Carolina, and of course LSU and Virginia Tech, they just showed such an amazing brand of basketball for the Final Four.”
What makes it even more exciting, according to both Mullen and Jabir, is the increasing parity in women’s college basketball that’s seen a greater diversity of programs rise to prominence.
“It’s not dominated by the same teams all the time,” Jabir said. “You have this influx of talent, and that’s been huge, and more people are becoming aware of it.”
“It’s really, really exciting,” Mullen said, “and fans are starting to notice what type of sport it is.”
For both Capital Region Division I women’s programs, there’s also a chance to piggyback on a season that will be filled with build-up and hype. UAlbany will be returning to a renovated home arena next year and hoping to reach the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, while Siena is looking to build on a 19-13 season that saw the Saints win their most games since 2014-15.
“When we look at our program, and where we want to take it, we aspire to the fact that women’s basketball is growing the way it is,” Jabir said. “We want to capitalize on that. We want to use this momentum and create greater awareness for our program.
“And, as we’re becoming better, as we’ve improved the program, I hope that we’re more relevant in the community and that they’ll want to be a part of it.. Hopefully, this is a trend that’s going to continue to grow.”
Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_Shinder.