The Nike Camp Ball

A few seats away from Summitt sits Jody Conradt of the University of Texas. Like Summitt, Conradt is a Hall of Fame coach; she holds the all-time NCAA record for victories: 725 and counting. A war between the states is shaping up for Ashley Robinson.

The ball goes up quickly at Nike Camp

Suddenly, arms and elbows are flying and sneakers are squeaking as girls take off up and down the court. Every six minutes, two new squads take the floor. Players want to show as much as possible in a short time. They know their stock can rise–or fall–if they don’t live up to their billing. “You don’t want to be the overrated player,” Taurasi explains. The result is that the girls shoot with all the restraint of bank robbers. Even with jitters and sloppy play, the girls know it’s a sellers’ market. “Somewhere along the line, the kids took over the recruiting process,” Auriemma says, sighing. “How many 17-year-olds are going to say, `Stop, please, I don’t want to hear anymore nice things about me?'”

But something even bigger is playing itself out at Nike Camp: the future of the women’s game. Twenty-five years ago, the Tennessee Lady Vols held bake sales to pay for their uniforms. The $5,000 women’s athletic budget at the University of Tennessee covered six sports. Pat Summitt’s starting salary as a physical education teacher and coach was $8,900.

Today the University of Tennessee women’s athletic budget exceeds $8 million; in 1998-99, the women’s basketball team generated $2.3 million in revenue. Summitt’s total compensation now tops $500,000 and attendance at Lady Vols home games has grown from an average of 3,000 fans in 1982 to 16,500 in 1999–higher than some NBA teams.

Tennessee isn’t the only example of exponential growth. In 1993, ESPN aired 12 women’s college games; last year, ESPN and ESPN2 showed a combined 52 games. Ratings in 1999 soared 24 percent over the previous year, and the 1999 NCAA championship game drew 3.2 million viewers, the second-biggest audience ever for a college game.

No one is quite sure what the newfound success will bring. In 1998, the nation’s top female recruit, Nina Smith of Waterloo, Iowa, considered skipping college and jumping straight to the WNBA. She thought better of it and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. But the day is coming when a female athlete will leapfrog college to the pros. “When a sport becomes a job, something changes,” says Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer.

For now, coaches are still clinging to the archaic notion that women’s college basketball is an ethic rather than a get-rich scheme. None of them wants to see the game marred by the problems that plague men’s college basketball: low graduation rates (41 percent for male players as opposed to 62 percent for women), illegal recruiting and gifts. They believe that a coach should be a teacher instead of a talent broker. The women’s game hasn’t become a farm system to the pros–not yet, anyway.

But the atmosphere at Nike Camp may be a harbinger of things to come. There is nothing playful about the mood in the gym in Indianapolis, where parents seem as tense as players. For many families, Nike Camp is just one stop in a summer schedule packed with tournaments and recruiting evaluations. Some players like Diana Taurasi and Ashley Robinson will attend as many as four different camps and tournaments before their vacation is over.

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