Ball was dropped by ESPN
It is fruitless to assess blame. Secretariat has left the barn and is at the clubhouse turn. There is, however, reason to explore why the UConn women were not televised Saturday for their quarterfinal game at the American Athletic Conference Tournament. And how the fans of Connecticut, who have fortified and sustained the women's game, deserve better treatment.
We begin with the following premise: The two most important entities within the women's game today are the University of Connecticut and ESPN.
UConn: The nation's preeminent program with fans whose passions are unparalleled — and frankly unique — to the game.
ESPN: The nation's monolithic visual sports platform, whose largesse toward the women's game, when ratings have occasionally suggested otherwise, have contributed to its unprecedented popularity and exposure.
It was ESPN's decision to show Saturday's game on ESPN3, the worldwide leader's online streaming service that offers live programming to your computer, smart phone, tablet, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Apple TV, Roku and any other gadget they sell at Best Buy. It's free, provided you live where there is a participating high speed Internet service provider.
ESPN3 is a wonderful invention, especially if you happen to root for a team whose games aren't all televised. But ESPN's decision to use ESPN3 as its platform for Saturday's game illustrates a bothersome level of disrespect for the game's best fans.
Here is why: A significant chunk of the Connecticut fan base owns AARP cards. UConn women's fans tend to be less technologically savvy. An appreciable number do not leave their homes much, if at all. They rely on television to see their girls. They pay for premium cable and satellite services.
And yet nobody ever explains to them why they can watch every game all season until the playoffs start and then they can't.
Doesn't that strike you as an unnecessarily cold?
Especially for a segment of people whose loyalty to the game - and not just UConn — has been significantly responsible for the growth of women's basketball?
One other thing: Not all high speed Internet providers in Connecticut offer ESPN3. MetroCast, for example. MetroCast, whose cable wing doesn't offer the CBS Sports Network, home of a few other UConn games this season. Note to MetroCast: Is there anybody alive over there? Your constituency beckons.
If ESPN didn't want to televise Saturday's game on its family of networks (discounting ESPN3) it should have farmed the broadcast to another provider, such as SNY. What, that's going to put ESPN in Chapter 11?
Maybe this is where some of you get off the train. Maybe you don't believe that UConn or its fans deserve special consideration. I do. Connecticut is the game's Broadway. Connecticut people are the most loyal to it. And so one time this season, ESPN couldn't do the charitable thing? Or does it fail to understand the uniqueness of the Connecticut fan base?
A popular theory here is that ESPN's choice to send this game to ESPN3 speaks to the American Athletic Conference's cachet problem. Fair point. Except that the UConn brand in women's basketball is bigger than all things AAC. This is not an AAC issue. This is about ESPN, UConn and what UConn fans mean to the game.
"Obviously, all the people that do watch us on television I'm sure were disappointed," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "We at the University of Connecticut have no control over that. It's not like we had a choice to put it on and didn't. There were lots of seats available here for those people."
The game drew 7,332 fans at Mohegan Sun Arena, leaving about 2,000 empty seats.
"I feel bad for the ones who can't get out here and can't be at the games," Auriemma said. "It's a new world. But if you can get it on your computer and hook up to your TV, it's the same thing, isn't it? Just a little bit of a hassle."
A little bit?
I'd rather sit next to Curt Schilling on a transatlantic flight that try to explain which cables to plug where so ESPN3 can be seen on the big Sony. This presumes they 1) have a computer and 2) know how to turn it on.
"I haven't heard why they chose not to televise it or why they didn't give it to someone who would," Auriemma said. "You'd probably have to ask someone who was involved in the negotiations."
Attempts to reach folks at ESPN for an explanation were unsuccessful.
However, if past performance is used as the guide, the answer would have been swimming in television technobabble or hinted that this is life in the Roaring 2000s.
"Nobody wants to (tick) off the TV people," Auriemma said. "I don't know what the easy answer to this is. But we're on (today), right?"
They are. It's UConn-Rutgers at 1 on ESPNU.
Get your popcorn ready.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.
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