Community Interview: Life as an Ivy League athlete, recruiting trends in women's basketball, and more:
The Ivy League: Good at basketball! And also, you know, everything else.
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I’ve got a bunch of announcements and a new Community Interview to share with y’all. Let’s get right to it.
1) In case you missed it last week, I’m launching a new podcast called Going For Two with Bryan Fischer of Athlon. You can listen to the teaser right here. Going For Two will publish once a week, and will focus on Extra Points-like topics that don’t easily fit in a newsletter. Our first episode will publish this Wednesday. You can find it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google, and right here on this newsletter.
2) While we may occasionally put some special bonus episodes behind a paywall, Going For Two will be free. In order to support Going For Two, I plan to run ads, and since I don’t anticipate a podcast that talks about lawsuits, media rights, FCS football, and college football history is going to rival the Paul Finebaum Show in raw downloads, we’ll be looking to sell ads ourselves. If you’d like to reach an audience of thousands of passionate and educated college athletics fans and insiders, please reach out to [email protected] to discuss packages around podcast and/or newsletter advertisements.
3) Speaking of ads, this week’s Extra Points sponsor is SZN Media LLC.
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I’ve known Stephen-Michael Thompson Jr. for a while, from his work at HBCU GameDay and Mid Major Madness, and I know he’s got a great eye for photography and great stories. I trust his judgment and am happy to recommend him.
4). Our community interview guest for today is Jenn Hatfield. Jenn is a women’s sports writer for Her Hoop Stats, The Next, and FiveThirtyEight, focusing primarily on women’s college and professional basketball. At The Next, she is the beat reporter for the Washington Mystics and the Ivy League. She also works full-time for an education-focused consulting firm in Washington, DC. Jenn graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harvard University, where she was a goalie on the field hockey team for four years and the lacrosse team for one year.
Before we get to her responses to your questions, a quick refresher on what exactly the Community Interview series is.
I launched the Community Interview series as a chance to take advantage of our readership, folks who have loads of experience and passions across so many aspects of college athletics. I pick up the phone and talk to folks just about every day, but I also want to give you an opportunity to ask questions, and also to our readers a chance to talk about what they know, what they’re passionate about, and how it all fits together.
If you would like to be a Community Interview Guest, please fill out this quick form and I’ll get back to you.
Our next interview will publish next week, and I’ll announce the next interview subject shortly.
The following conversation with Jenn has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Additional editorial commentary by yours truly will be in parentheses, following a response.
Reader Phil asks:
I’m really intrigued by the conversations about how those outside of football will be able to benefit from NIL changes. In women’s basketball, how do you see players — aside from the big names at the marquee schools — being most able to take advantage?
The biggest opportunity that comes to mind is allowing players to hold camps or offer private lessons in the summer and use the fact that they play college basketball at School X as a marketing strategy, something that is currently not allowed. Depending on their local market, autographs or signed photos could also be a relatively easy way for them to make money, as could websites like Cameo, where athletes record personalized video messages for a set price.
(I’d also add that in talking to consultants, the other financial piece that repeatedly comes up is Social Media. An athlete does not have to be a very visible member of a championship-contending team to amass a social media following large enough to entice sponsors. They just have to be good at Instagram.)
Reader Dave asks:
Based on your experience as a college athlete, what do you think general fans misunderstand the most about what the day to day is actually like? Particularly how your experience differed from, say, a football player?
I think the day-to-day varies tremendously depending on the school and the priorities of the coaching staff, more so than the sport. But I think people underestimate how academically invested many of these student-athletes are. I went to an Ivy League school, so you probably won’t be surprised to hear that although I was incredibly serious about my sport, schoolwork came first. Bus rides were my study halls.
The summer before my senior year, I stayed on campus to work on my thesis, and I joked that I had a “9-to-5” schedule: go to bed at 9pm, wake up at 5am to work out before being in the psychology lab and working a separate job all day (and sometimes doing another workout in the evenings). But some fans don’t realize that outside the country’s most elite schools, many other athletes are just as dedicated to their academics, sometimes double-majoring or even graduating early to pursue a master’s degree while on scholarship.
Also, my best friends from college, the ones I call and visit the most several years out of college, were not athletes. Some people think athletes are isolated from the rest of the student body, and that’s true at some schools, especially during the pandemic right now. But other schools prioritize ensuring that all students interact with a diverse set of peers, at least in non-pandemic times.
(I admit, I am guilty of underestimating both athletic academic investment and level of connectedness to the non-athlete community sometimes)
If you had unlimited power, what would you recommend to improve competitive balance in women's college basketball? Do you think it's an actual concern?
I think it’s gotten better over the past decade or so, and I think it will continue to improve as recruits continue to recognize that they can be tremendously successful at schools that are not traditional powers. I’m curious whether the disruptions to recruiting caused by the pandemic will impact competitive balance, perhaps by making recruits more likely to stay close to home or giving mid-majors a better shot at signing “hidden gems” that bigger schools might normally uncover but miss this year. I think I’d cede my power on this one and let it all play out naturally.
Can I use that power instead to add more WNBA roster spots?? Please?
(I’ll be fascinated to see if recruiting disruptions after COVID upset the recruiting status quo in non-football/men’s basketball type sports. I’ve also been told by several folks who follow the WNBA closely that it’s actually the hardest professional league to secure a roster spot for, just because there aren’t enough spots. There are some REALLY good basketball players in a potential free agent/expansion pool.)
How good could Ivy League women's basketball REALLY get? How significant an obstacle is the lack of scholarships, in practice?
In a nutshell, very good! Last year, the Ivy League ranked seventh in the RPI behind the Power 5 conferences and the Big East, and I see no reason why it can’t remain at that level for the foreseeable future and even challenge for a higher spot in some seasons. Elite players are increasingly interested in playing in the Ivy League, and that could accelerate after we saw Princeton’s Bella Alarie get drafted into the WNBA with the No. 5 overall pick in 2020.
I don’t think that scholarships are that much of a factor because of Ivy League schools’ generous need-based financial aid policies. Half of the Ivy League schools promise to meet families’ full financial need without requiring them to take out loans, so financial aid can effectively replace scholarships for some students.
(I want to write about the need-based financial aid dynamic here over the next month or so. I’m told this is already a recruiting advantage in non-headcount sports, and potential college affordability legislation over the next few years could impact this even more. Who needs 15 athletic scholarships if Uncle Sam will help underwrite the bill?)
Also from me:
If you could change one thing about your college athletic experience, what would it have been?
I wish I would’ve had more confidence in myself—and, to help with that, I wish I would have worked with a sports psychologist sooner (I saw one a few times late in my career). I have no regrets about how hard I worked or how much effort I put in every day or how well I supported my teammates, but I think I could’ve performed at a higher level if I was less worried about failure.
One more thing: I would love to have one more shot at beating Princeton! ;)
(Even before COVID, one of the major themes that came up in almost every conversation I’ve had with an athletic director or senior administrator has been athlete mental health, not just in terms of improving performance, but helping them better manage and cope with stress and failure, generally. If any athletes are reading this, I highly encourage you to use any services available to you that may help you manage your mental health.)
And finally, reader Steven asks:
College football players tend to come from the Southeast, Texas, Ohio and Florida. Where do the most elite women's basketball recruits come from? How, or why, is that distribution different?
Last May, Her Hoop Stats did an analysis of recruiting geography from the past 10 years and found that the South and the Midwest produce the highest number of top-100 recruits relative to their population. By state, Maryland, Georgia, and New Jersey produced the most top-100 recruits per capita, and Ohio and Florida were also in the top ten on that list.
So it looks relatively similar to college football, but I’m sure there are plenty of reasons for the differences we do see. Weather is likely one; with basketball being played inside, the warmer climates in the Southeast likely boost participation in football but not in basketball. It would be interesting to analyze whether the presence of nearby college or professional teams has an impact. And I’d bet that state or local policies that encourage or discourage girls from participating in sports (whether overtly or subtly) have at least some impact in some places.
This is good information, and answers that tie to a lot of topics that we’ve been discussing here at Extra Points. Thanks for your time, Jen, and I hope our readers look for her and her peers for other women’s basketball information.
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I’ll see y’all tomorrow.