Sunday, June 10, 2007

ESPN Tried To Save Vols Series

ESPN billed the first women's basketball meeting of top-ranked Tennessee and second-ranked UConn on Jan. 16, 1995 at Gampel Pavilion as the "Battle of the Best."

"That first game is often referred to as the dawn of a new, more popular era of women's basketball," said Mike Soltys, ESPN's vice president of domestic network communications. "There was more media at Gampel Pavilion that day than there certainly had ever been before or after for any regular-season game."

ESPN sensed something big was on the horizon. And for the past 11 seasons, the annual matchups of the teams and their Hall of Fame coaches, Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma, have become the closest thing the sport has had to a Super Bowl.

"The series was a known commodity for the casual sports fan who may not have ordinarily been interested in women's basketball," Soltys said. "The games were quality, the personalities of the coaches were strong and they often met at crucial times, particularly in the NCAA Tournament. It became the showcase rivalry in the sport and we were happy to have the majority of them [on ESPN]."

But now ESPN will have to make do without it. The rivalry, voted this spring the greatest in the history of the sport by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, ended Friday when Tennessee declined to sign a contract that would have guaranteed a two-year extension of the series through 2009.

Multiple sources indicated Saturday that the decision to end the series had to do, in part, with Tennessee's frustration over several issues, some relating to the recruiting style the Huskies have used through the years to land top high school standouts, like freshman Maya Moore.

Auriemma did not want to comment on the situation Saturday.

"I can't really," Auriemma said.

A source familiar with the situation said Saturday that Tennessee's intentions to end the series have been widely known for almost two months - the Big East Conference was also aware - and ESPN did its best to circumvent Friday's announcement.

Carol Stiff, the former Southern Connecticut basketball player now ESPN's senior director of programming and acquisition, did all she could to save the series by talking to all those involved.

"Carol's job was one of the most difficult," the source said. "She was trying to lobby for the continuation of the series without alienating either side in the process because of her need to maintain a good working relationship with them. She also worked through the SEC office to change things. Neither effort helped."

Coincidentally, Stiff was again traveling to Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday for the induction ceremony at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

"We are disappointed that the game between Connecticut and Tennessee has ended," Stiff said in an e-mail. "As you know, it was not our decision to make. There is not much more to say."

ESPN had shared the game with CBS since the 2001-02 season, when the series was cut back to once a year after the teams had played twice a season beginning in 1999-2000. It was largely ESPN that influenced the expansion of the series, which six times featured regular season matchups of the top two teams in the country.

But Tennessee tired of the home-and-home - Summitt said that she wanted to focus on SEC rivalries - and the teams have alternated sites since. This season's game was to be played in Knoxville, most likely in prime time on Feb. 17.

Now it's likely that ESPN will shift its focus to UConn's nonconference games against LSU and North Carolina while adding additional coverage of Rutgers, a Final Four team last season, to its prime-time plans.

"There are other teams that have emerged. There are top games that we will put together, but it still doesn't diminish our disappointment about the end of [UConn-Tennessee]," Soltys said. "Both schools and conferences know our interest in this rivalry. And it will be something we will revisit in the future with all the parties involved."

Contact John Altavilla at

No comments: