SAN ANTONIO -- With the entire 2021 NCAA women's basketball tournament taking place at neutral sites this season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the oft-debated question of whether the event permanently should go all-neutral in the early rounds is being asked again.
Some of the game's top coaches are in favor of it but are concerned about attendance.
"In every [other] sport in the NCAA, you don't have neutral sites in the first couple rounds," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Because it happens in men's basketball [which is at neutral sites for the duration], people just assume it's supposed to happen in women's basketball. But it'd be terrible to have games at neutral sites and have what you have here now, a quiet gym."
Of course, the reason the early-round games this year were quiet: Attendance wasn't allowed for them other than family and friends. From the Sweet 16 on starting Saturday, the NCAA women's games will allow a 17% venue capacity for fans.
But Auriemma's point is that concern over low attendance has to be taken into account with any consideration of changing to all-neutral-site games.
"So if you could say the fans will show up, then I'm all for it," Auriemma said. "And I think that would be great for the game, if we could do it."
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley believes that teams earn the right to host the early rounds with their season-long results, and that's a reward for them and their fans. Going all-neutral would take that away, she said.
"Am I in favor of it? Nope," Staley said. "That's what you work for. It gives an extra incentive during the season to pack the house. We draw a big crowd, we've been No. 1 in attendance the past six years. Let's not take our game backwards."
The tournament's setup normally is to have the top 16 seeds host the first- and second-round games, then have four regionals at neutral sites. Starting in 2023, the regionals will be at two sites rather than four.
The NCAA has tried several different setups for the women's tournament over the years. From 1982 to 2002, top-seeded teams hosted early-round games, followed by four regionals at preselected sites that weren't necessarily neutral, as schools could bid to host them. (The tournament didn't expand to 64 teams until 1994.)
In 2003, the NCAA went to preselected sites for the early-round games; schools could bid to host, but not for more than two years in a row. That resulted in more neutral-site games. A change used from 2005 to 2008 brought even more neutral-site games, with early-round games held at eight sites -- the same setup as the men's tournament, except teams could play in subregionals they hosted. That eight-team pod system ended after 2008, though, because of attendance concerns, and the tournament went back to 16 preselected sites. In 2015, the top 16 seeds began hosting early-round games again.
Regionals have been at neutral sites since 2005, with the exception of 2014, when they were on campus sites for one year. Coaches objected to that, and the regionals returned to neutral sites.
There are no guarantees that neutral sites would bring more upsets, though.
At this year's tournament there are six seeds outside the top 16 that made the regional semifinals; they are all No. 5 or 6 seeds. As recently as 2018, there were two No. 11 seeds that made the women's Sweet 16 -- Buffalo and Central Michigan -- by winning on higher-seeded teams' home courts.
Still, some coaches think just the probability of more upsets makes a change worth considering.
"What makes the men's NCAA tournament what it is, is those early-round upsets," Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. "In the end, it's usually the better teams that make their way to the Elite Eight and the Final Four, but those early-round upsets are what makes the tournament great.
"It's hard enough for a 13 to beat a 4, or a 15 to beat a 2. But then when you have to do it on that higher seed's floor, it's next to impossible. With the way the game has grown, if you pick those spots wisely, I think you can grow and make it special."
Louisville coach Jeff Walz agrees but also has concerns about attendance. He also added he would favor going to one regional site at some point.
"I think you get one place to put a Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in," he said, "and you can have a wonderful venue with some great basketball games."