Women's NCAA tournament sets regional attendance record

SEATTLE -- Women's NCAA tournament regionals in Seattle and Greenville, South Carolina, set attendance records with a combined 82,275 fans across eight Sweet 16 and four Elite Eight games this past week.

The previous women's NCAA tournament attendance record for the regional round was 73,954 fans in 2003, and the last time the attendance number got above 70,000 was in 2014. Last year's regionals drew 62,127 fans.

The Seattle regional, played at Climate Pledge Arena, set the pace with 43,556 fans. Greensville had 38,719 fans show at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

This year was the first since the event switched from a four-regional format to a two-regional one in attempt to feature more neutral sites. Regionals will be held in Albany, New York, and Portland, Oregon, in 2024; Birmingham, Alabama, and Spokane in 2025; and Fort Worth, Texas, and Sacramento, California, in 2026. First- and second-round competition is still held on campus sites for the top 16 teams in the tournament.

"I think that I really try to keep a global view of this -- that I am in favor of having more and more neutral opportunities in the regional sites," UCLA coach Cori Close said before her team's Sweet 16 loss to South Carolina in Greenville. "If this is that next right step for a higher percentage of the regional games to be played on neutral courts, I'm for it. Even if it doesn't benefit me individually and with my institutional that as the UCLA coach, I think it's important to keep growing our sport."

While Greenville was less than two hours away from campus for No. 1 seed South Carolina, every team at the Seattle regional -- aside from Colorado -- was from east of the Mississippi River, leading to initial concerns that those programs' fans wouldn't travel so far.

While Seattle is celebrated as a women's basketball city, the Iowa Hawkeyes -- who enjoy tremendous support in Iowa City from their rabid fanbase -- had a great showing of Hawkeyes faithful across their Seattle 4 regional run, which culminated in earning their first Final Four berth since 1993.

"I think I like it," Iowa star Caitlin Clark said of the format. "Obviously it's not close to the state of Iowa, but I still feel like we have really good support here. We get to play in a city that loves women's basketball. ... It's been different for me every year [playing in the tournament] but I think it's been good. I thought the turnout was really good [for the Sweet 16]. But, yeah, I think we love getting to watch other teams ... so it's been fun."

Not only did fans turn out in record numbers, but so did viewers. The Iowa-Louisville regional finale on Sunday had 2.5 million viewers on ESPN -- the most for a non-Final Four women's tournament game. It broke the record set just one day earlier, when 2.4 million viewers tuned in to watch Ohio State beat UConn in the Sweet 16.

The Sweet 16 games averaged 1.2 million viewers for eight games on ESPN and ABC, while that number skyrocketed to 2.2 million viewers for the four Elite Eight games on ESPN.

With eight teams at each site heading into the Sweet 16, the regionals felt akin to an AAU tournament at times, team personnel said. Some logistical complexities emerged from that, some coaches said, such as less practice time at the arena.

"Only being an hour on the court was pretty short, so you kind of have to find another place to practice in addition, which you have to drive then and get out of your bus, so it takes a little bit more time," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "The only thing I wish is that you could have an hour-and-a-half. That would make a big difference on the court. An-hour-and-a-half versus an hour would really let you probably practice in one place instead of having two places to practice. That's been my only issue. Otherwise, I think it's been great."

But reviews were still generally positive about the two-site format.

"It doesn't concern me at all," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of the practice-time allotment. "I think it's been great. I think the NCAA's done a fantastic job. The crowd at least in our [Sweet 16 game] was awesome. ... You've just got to give a little bit. It's part of it.

"Whatever we can do to put more teams in one location to bring in more fans, I think the better. Players want to play in front of people. And if that's what it takes, that's what it takes. If we only get an hour to shoot tonight, well, that's all they're going to get. So we have to go to an off-site [location]. It's no big deal. ... We're all getting the same thing. So I think it's fantastic. The event's been great, the arena, the staff, everybody has been first class."

The Final Four will be held in Dallas on Friday and Sunday.