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Jeff Kolpack, Published February 28 2013

Mirror scheduling has its share of critics already in Summit League

FARGO – The Summit League will once again address its basketball scheduling philosophy. At the least, it appears the mirror scheduling format the conference went to this season will face a full-court press.

For starters, count Western Illinois athletic director Tim Van Alstine as one who wouldn’t mind a turnover.

“I think it does a complete disservice to the men’s basketball program, the women’s basketball program and our university in general,” he said.

The conference this year went to “mirror scheduling,” meaning when the North Dakota State men played at Western Illinois and Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, that the Bison women hosted those two schools on the same days.

One of the aims was to provide women’s basketball its own show over the course of the season. But if attendance is a measuring stick, the mirror scheduling did not mean more fans. The seven NCAA-eligible teams that have been in the league the last two years have collectively seen a slight decrease from 789 fans a game in 2011-12 to 748 so far this year.

NDSU averaged 866 fans a year ago. The Bison, albeit struggling at 10-17 overall, are at 695 a game this season – 495 in Summit games. That’s less than Division II Minnesota State Moorhead, which plays conference doubleheaders. Only once has NDSU topped 1,000 in attendance, and that was 2,709 in the first matchup against the University of North Dakota since 2004.

“It’s interesting. Attendance in general hasn’t been high on the men’s or women’s side,” said NDSU women’s athletic director Lynn Dorn. “We don’t think it has anything to do with mirror scheduling. It’s one of the things that we’ll evaluate.”

Despite a 20-win season and its highest RPI rating as a Division I program, NDSU’s men’s attendance is down slightly from 3,156 a game in 2011-12 to 2,906 this season.

South Dakota State, far and away the women’s leader averaging 2,403 last season, is at 2,028 this year.

SDSU head coach Aaron Johnston said he thinks fans are split down the middle on the mirror schedule concept. Some like basketball every weekend while some who live outside of Brookings liked the doubleheaders every other weekend because of travel.

“I’m not married to the idea, and I’m not completely opposed to the idea,” Johnston said. “I think fans who are unhappy with the mirror schedule are the loudest probably, because if you love something, you don’t express how much you enjoy it.”

Van Alstine believes part of the reason the basketball scheduling is on the agenda for the Summit’s annual meeting March 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D., is the league makeup and coaching staffs have changed. He looks at his own school, which has a first-year head women’s coach who is more interested in having men’s-women’s doubleheaders.

“I had a coach before who was adamantly advancing mirror scheduling,” Van Alstine said.

Asked for a specific instance on why he doesn’t think mirror scheduling is working this year, he pointed to Feb. 16. That’s when the Leathernecks women hosted SDSU while the WIU men played at SDSU in a game that was televised in the Macomb, Ill., market.

“Many of our fans stayed home to watch the men’s game on TV as opposed to coming to Western Hall,” he said. “It’s that way in many of our communities. Macomb is like Brookings, Vermillion, you pick it. We have the same fan base for both men’s and women’s basketball.”

With fans not wanting to attend games every weekend, especially in a smaller community like Macomb, “it forces our fan base to choose which sport to support,” Van Alstine said.

The decline in women’s attendance this year counteracts the league’s “Summit Plan” of a few years ago, an initiative that included a goal for increasing fan support. Dorn said doubleheaders will probably not be part of the Summit discussion because the league as a whole feels it’s a recruiting disadvantage.

Some schools view a women’s game being on the front end of a doubleheader as a “prelim game, a second thought,” Dorn said. NDSU’s stance, she said, is to remain committed to mirror scheduling, although she also said “it’s a work in progress.”

On a nationwide scope, the Southland Conference uses the doubleheaders concept. The 11-team Big Sky has mirror scheduling with a “lone wolf” system that has Southern Utah traveling on its own. The Horizon League has separate schedules entirely for the men and women.

Both Johnston and Dorn said the Thursday-Saturday mirror scheduling meant less missed class time and a true day off during the week as opposed to the previous Saturday-Monday setup.

With nine teams, it wasn’t a perfect mirror of scheduling this year, either. And the league will still be at nine next year with the addition of the University of Denver and the departure of Missouri-Kansas City.

It remains to be seen if the shakeup will shake the schedule up.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia