Published April 01. 2014 4:00AM
There are even ushers in the parking garages near Pinnacle Bank Arena. They smile. They hold doors for patrons. They ask how your day is going. Sort of makes you smirk, especially if you've ever experienced those yellow-jacketed puppets at Gampel Pavilion (where it's four dollars more to park, by the way). They're less likely to hold doors than to suggest they not leave a lasting impression, if they're not barking other missives.
They are nice people here in mid-America, further underscoring what a bunch of uptight, impatient nincompoops we are in the northeast. No, really. These people do polite as a habit.
And they know how to run a basketball tournament.
Note to the NCAA: If there's ever another occasion to play regionals at neutral sites, you should do some serious thinkin' about Lincoln.
Maybe by now in Connecticut, women's basketball headquarters, we've grown weary of all the "growth of the game" parables. You become immune. And then you miss when growth actually happens.
The game grew here this weekend.
The home team, the fighting Kelsey Griffins of Nebraska, didn't participate in the Lincoln Regional. And the crowds were still great. So was local media coverage. No provincialism, just professionalism.
"In football country, this is basketball country," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "Congratulations to Nebraska, congratulations to this arena. This arena can hold national championships. It is well done. The game is so much better than what it used to be. That's how far this game has come."
Indeed. Add Lincoln to the growing list of pockets that have helped legitimize the women's game. They are still pockets, sure. But they're growing. A whole pant leg isn't far behind.
The regional semifinals drew 9,585 fans, the largest to date in the 2014 women's tournament. The previous high was 8,774 at Notre Dame earlier Saturday afternoon. The only other time women's basketball drew more at Pinnacle Bank Arena was the day it opened at the Cornhuskers played UCLA.
It was an enlightening weekend. Aside from the UConn women's accomplishment — Final Four No. 15 Monday night — we learned that Connecticut isn't the world's lone outpost for the women's sports revolution.
"Husker fans support women's athletics like no other," wrote Darnell Dickson of the Journal Star of Lincoln. "Nebraska was No. 1 nationally in women's volleyball attendance this year, unseating perennial champion Hawaii. The Devaney Center averaged 8,175 fans for every home game, for a total of 155,325. Nebraska was No. 3 in Big Ten women's basketball attendance at 6,161 fans per game. In 18 home games, 110,892 fans (UConn drew 149,625 in 18 home games, too) came to watch Husker women's hoops."
"Here's how special that is," Dickson wrote: "A study released in 2013 showed that of the 343 women's teams in Division I, 205 averaged fewer than 1,000 spectators and 90 averaged fewer than 500."
Such evidence suggests women's basketball remains a niche. But growth rarely happens exponentially. And while instant gratification is all the rage, progressive gratification is more enduring.
That's the word. Progressive.
Consider that in a week, UConn coach Geno Auriemma might win his ninth national championship. In fewer than 20 years. There aren't enough hosannas, really. Think, too, about the game in the last 20 years. It has blossomed from Knoxville, Ruston and far fewer pockets than today. ESPN has turned it more national than ever. UConn has become a national brand. They keep shoveling dirt on the WNBA and the WNBA keeps generating corporate sponsorships and Magic Johnson's money.
So what happens in the next 20 years with the same progressive growth?
And it happens one Lincoln at a time.
Here's hoping Nashville does as well with the Final Four as Lincoln did with the regional. A fun college town, nice people and an affinity for a growing game. Take note, skeptics. Another convert.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.