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The Evolution Of Women’s Basketball: NCAA’S Lynn Holzman

Guest Lynn Holzman, NCAA
22:21 min watch


NCAA Vice President for Women’s Basketball Lynn Holzman sits down with Athletic Director U to dig into the current state and trajectory of women’s basketball. Holzman touches on the strategic plan, response from issues in men’s basketball, the transfer portal, rule changes, and more. Holzman also chats about the value of her past experience as the Commissioner of the West Coast Conference and what she wishes she knew early in her career.

  • - How did your experience as Commissioner for the West Coast Conference help you in your current role?
  • - What does not translate from your experience as Commissioner?
  • - Can you provide updates to the women's basketball strategic plan and what metrics you are using to judge progress?
  • - What has the response been from women's basketball coaches and stakeholders to the events that have transpired in men's basketball?
  • - Where and who is that feedback on those issues coming from?
  • - How is the transfer portal unique to women's basketball?
  • - Can you consciously see a difference in your opinions from your time as Commissioner to now as the Vice President of Women's Basketball?
  • - What rule changes are potentially on the horizon for women's basketball?
  • - If you could write a letter to your younger self, what advice would you give yourself and what do you wish you knew when you got into this industry?
  • - What would you point to as a speed bump in your own career that ended up being beneficial?
  • - What do you want the membership to know about the trajectory of women's basketball?



Full Transcript

Matt Roberts: Hi, Matt Roberts with Athletic Director U and D1.ticker from the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Pleased to get to sit down with NCAA VP of Women’s Basketball Lynn Holzman. Lynn, you spent a number of years as the commissioner of the West Coast Conference before returning here to Indianapolis. And I’d like to start with some insights from your end on how that experience in San Bruno helped you in your role now overseeing women’s basketball here at the NCAA.


Lynn Holzman: Well, I don’t know if we have enough time today for me to really describe how much it’s helped, you know, in serving as a Division I commissioner and in that CEO role as you just described. There’s so much that transfers over into what I’m doing here as the vice president women’s basketball, and frankly, I think it’s because of that experience why it was a… I was even a better candidate, if you will, for this position. I mean, as a commissioner, you’re involved in so many things. And it’s everything from, as people would expect, involved with broadcast partners. You’re involved with multimedia rights. You’re involved with marketing the brand. You’re involved with trying to position your teams to be as successful as possible. All the internal operations, fiscal responsibility and oversight and everything. As you work with stakeholders, your presidents within the conference, that’s similar to what we do here in serving in women’s basketball as the vice president, working with stakeholders from a variety of organizations across the girls women’s basketball landscape. So all those things transfer over.


And of course, you know, throughout my career, having worked here before at the NCAA, there were relationships and working with people that I continue to be able to draw on to today but as a commissioner, and being with, you know, commissioner colleagues, the other 31 commissioners, that continues to help as we are trying to put forward initiatives for NCAA women’s basketball because that connectedness with those people, they know who I am, what I’m about, what we’re trying to do, I can talk to them about what we’re trying to do here in women’s basketball. And there’s just a different type of credibility associated with that when you kind of use those relationships in a way to make it beneficial for everyone.


MR: And what doesn’t translate? And I’m curious to ask this one because we happen to be here on a day when the championships department division had their annual Olympics, which maybe you had a stake in the game didn’t participate, but…


LH: Well, the women’s basketball staff had a stake.


MR: Yeah. Okay. Right. Okay, right, right.


LH: Yeah.


MR: But that daily “did my team win” is maybe less so in this role than as a commissioner, although you’re certainly advocating for all institutions in a given conference, non-conference, I know you’re always pulling from them. Is there like a competitive vibe difference for you?


LH: There is. There certainly is. You know, one of the things that I thoroughly enjoyed being at the conference office is I had a chance, you could cheer, as you said, for 10 different schools…


MR: Right.


LH: …and their teams and you’re invested in a different way and the successes in particular, as teams are going to the NCAA championships, and we were a multi-bid league and in most all of our sports. There, so you take that. And then you also take at the conference level, being a multi-sport conference, it’s just the variety of the sports that you get a chance to get to know those student athletes and those coaches, and again, get invested in their success. So the difference here is it kind of… it’s a refocus. It’s kind of a pivot in a different way. And a majority of my time is really spent on women’s basketball. But to be, but to be frank, part of my responsibility as a vice president, although it is for women’s basketball, is still a being a vice president of the NCAA and the national office. So I’m involved in a myriad of issues that just affect college athletics and what, and what we are trying to do to help serve and lead our institutions and the membership.


MR: We’re going to talk about some of those issues but you also noted how you’re spending your time, the strategic plan for women’s basketball moving forward, and I’m going to rattle off kind of some key aspects of the five-year plan, unifying, grow the game and the community, excuse me; empower student athletes to see their full potential; celebrate and elevate the game; and create an inspiring experience for all involved. Can you give us updates on those? And then what metrics you’re using to judge your progress?


LH: Well, the first thing I think to note about the strategic plan and this hopefully, the reason I say this is it really needs to be emphasized is this is the first time really that I’m aware of and no one has corrected me up to this point that we’ve ever had, for, at the NCAA level have done a comprehensive division-wide strategic plan for a sport. When I came in as vice president of the women’s basketball community, that was one of the things they were clamoring for. It wasn’t about Division I, II or III. There’s underlying aspects of that of course, and there has to be, with the way our organization is structured, but it was about how do we grow and develop girls and women’s basketball. And so, with that, activating and engaging stakeholders across our community was imperative. We, we worked with well over 1,000 stakeholders, people that have since retired out of the game but are still are guardians of the game, our current student athletes across the three divisions, coaches, stakeholders from USA Basketball, the WNBA, the WBCA and others. So, what you just described as our vision is for NCAA women’s basketball, but I’m sure and we know that those things really resonate with people throughout the women’s basketball community as a vision for our sport overall.


Now within this, the, since the plan was launched at the end of April, we’ve continued work within our NCAA governance structure and these stakeholders to develop action plans associated with the goals and strategies that were identified. And with those action plans come metrics or accountability measures that we are demonstrating.


Success wise, there’s a few things that we can point to already that were identified in the plan that actually we can sit there and tick off that it’s either in progress or accomplished. And a really recent example is the one that working with our Division I women’s basketball committee, we had cited in the plan that we wanted to take a look at our championship format, for example, and there were some clamoring out in the media and other places that, “Hey, is regionals right for what we do in women’s basketball?” And so, somewhat triggered because there’s a timing issue of there’s a new… there’s a championship bid opportunity opening up here.


MR: Sure.


LH: But the women’s basketball committee just completed. And we just announced that starting 2023, which is the first year that we don’t have sites assigned already, we’re moving from a four-site regional format to a two. This is all under the pillar within our plan of memorable championships. And then it kind of relates also back to fan engagement and moving from a four to a two-site format, also related to our plan, allows us to activate some other things to build that community and to grow our game as you just described with that vision statement. We’re looking to partner with the WBCA for them to bring programming at that regional level for, within that sphere to high school coaches to help get more student athletes interested in coaching and in officiating to help fill our pipelines. And we are able to do that. We already do some of that at Final Four, but to bring it also down to regionals in a two-site format, we gained tremendous economies. And of course, I’m excited about the possibilities within that about how we can potentially increase and expand on our fan bases.


MR: Mm-hmm.


LH: At these two sites, you’re going to have two number one seeds, two number two seeds. It’s going to be pretty exciting.


MR: Reform is also kind of part of your agenda as you move forward for the sport. And there’s three subcommittees—women’s basketball recruiting environment, diversity, retention and professional coaching. You just touched on that a little bit. And professional athletics opportunities, walk us through each one of those.


LH: So those areas are tied. Those areas are bucketed and tied somewhat back to what was announced as a result of the Rice Commission, the college basketball reform that came out of men’s basketball. Working with our oversight committee, Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee and Division I, that’s our top women’s basketball governance body. And they were charged with essentially taking what was instituted and identified through that college basketball reform report and initiatives and looking at it through the lens of women’s basketball. So these groups are tied back to that in those topics. But there’s a recognition and acknowledgement that you get… can’t just take what was happening in the men’s game and assume…


MR: Sure.


LH: …that to the same magnitude, or that those same kinds of issues in the same form exists in the women’s game. So those groups have been spending a lot of time Identifying and kind of reflecting on what has been taking place in women’s basketball looking at what has happened to men’s basketball, where do you start to see some of the similar concerns occurring…


MR: Right.


LH: …and everything and then hopefully us being a lot more proactive to, to put some things in place to either provide supportive programs that allow us to advance or deterrence in a way that help us address and curb some of those issues. So a quick example is that in the recruiting space, we saw some of the changes relative to scholastic opportunities during the summer. And our recruiting subcommittee, for example, is looking at specifically that type of issue as to whether in the women’s game is there a different way we can bring the scholastic coach and administrators back into that summer evaluation period.


MR: Broadly, in your view, as what’s gone on in the men’s game, have women’s coaches and stakeholders responded with, “Hey, this is a crisis opportunity for us to,” again, you mentioned it’s not the same issues and the exact same application, but there could be some aspects that there are some similarities there. So, has the overwhelming expression been, “Hey, let’s take a look as a great opportunity,” or has it been, “Not us. Hey, we’re good”?


LH: My sense, and both personally and throughout the community, is that this is an opportunity. It hasn’t been just a hands up, we don’t have these issues. And frankly, if that had been our response, I would be enormously concerned. Because as the world continues to evolve and change around us, we can never just sit…


MR: Sure.


LH: …back on our heels, sit stagnant, sit on our laurels and say we’re never going to be affected by these things. And historically, we’ve seen in some of these areas where women’s basketball has had similar concerns over the years, they may not necessarily get the same type of media coverage…


MR: Right.


LH: …or that may not be to the magnitude, but they still exist. At the end of the day coaches want to have a fair opportunity when they’re recruiting student athletes to, for that student athlete to come to their institution and their program to be a student athlete and, and participate and play at the highest level that they can. So as outside influences that may negatively impact that opportunity and everything, those issues have existed on the women’s side as well. When you look at what happens, and I use the example just now about summer recruiting.


MR: Mm-hmm.


LH: Our women’s coaches in the WBCA, our Women’s Basketball Coaches Association has been saying for the last 10, 15 years, there are similar issues. And you’ve seen efforts in concert with the WBCA to make changes over the years to our recruiting model.


MR: Yeah.


LH: This is an opportunity and I think eye opening in some ways of some things people may not necessarily have anticipated to say, “Wait, wait a second, we got to really think about what’s happening here. And let’s, let’s adapt as we need to.”


MR: I’m specifically interested in the cadence of how those conversations take place. My view is it’s an opportunity too for all of us, for the industry as a whole, but are you commonly hearing this from the WBCA primarily? Is this direct from head coaches you already have relationships with, fellow commissioners or previous fellow commissioners? Where is a lot of that… it’s not static feedback? Where is a lot of feedback coming from when it hits your desk?


LH: All the above.


MR: Yeah.


LH: Yeah. And, and I think that’s, that’s also representative when you talk about a women’s basketball community, it’s no single-titled group, if you will, because truly the community is as works in college athletics in so many ways. Leadership comes from many different areas.


MR: Right.


LH: And we… we’re, I’m grateful that we have a very active coaches association that takes the responsibility of being a leader within women’s basketball. They take that responsibility very much to heart. So, the WBCA and its membership and its board is very consistent about providing feedback and, and being part of proactive conversations. But to your point, and I think this also is demonstrative of where women’s basketball sits in the sense of value and visibility within Division I college athletics is that commissioners care and they talk about it.


MR: Mm-hmm.


LH: And athletic directors care and they talk about it and other leaders on campus care. You know, we… women’s basketball is one of the most high-profile men’s or women’s sports that we have. And any threat or crisis that would ever hit our sport is going to hit the college athletics model also. So, you know, people being proactive about those conversations and raising the issues or saying, “Where is women’s basketball on this?” just reinforces the value that we have.


MR: Sure. As the VP of women’s basketball, how do you view the transfer portal debate right now? And we just touched upon initial recruiting of prospective student athletes and some challenges that may exist in the women’s game. But what’s unique to women’s game transfer portal-wise and where do you see tweaks potentially being needed?


LH: I don’t know if there’s anything necessarily unique to women’s basketball per se about the conversation relative to transfers itself. As we’ve seen, as the NCAA has, has studied this and with our membership, with the membership over the course of the last several years, it’s a challenging issue, and there’s people that have… there’s a wide variety of opinions on this. And it still remains to be seen, I think, as the conversations continue, if there really is, you know, one single place to fall on this. You know, I think as you, as you consider the student athlete experience, as you consider, you know, coaches and others that are trying to field the competitive teams, all of that, it’s hard to say. But everything that I’ve seen as I’ve… as I formerly was a Division I council member…


MR: Right, right.


LH: …as commissioner of the West Coast Conference to now, you know, sitting at the staff table in the back of the room and hearing the conversations, it’s a challenging issue. And… but there’s nothing necessarily that I would pull out to say is specifically unique to women’s basketball, what we talk about in men’s basketball, or other sports, or football or whatever, you can see those similar types of concerns or benefits on both sides that need to be weighed.


MR: Can you consciously see a difference in your own opinion from a couple of years ago feel, think, or whatever the right word here is of, “If I were commissioner, I would feel x; I’m not a VP of women’s basketball, I feel x two nth degree or minus one because I have a different perspective now broadly”?


LH: I think that’s a natural thing that happens with any one of us throughout our professional career. As you kind of… as you move from different positions and with different organizations, I think, and also as we sit in these positions, truly having to be the servant leader. So as commissioner of the West Coast Conference, part of my personal feelings were certainly influenced by the 10 schools, those presidents, athletic directors and others that I was working with. And part of my responsibility was to be reflective of that, and in turn to help make sure that they were educated and informed and then that turned, educated and informed me.


Similarly, you know, as we, as we talk about things specifically in women’s basketball, and I’m closer specifically to the women’s basketball community, those coaches as they are expressing whatever position they may have on this or other topics, it’s eye opening and you pause and you reflect. So I think it just evolves over time as we continue to learn and mature and grow professionally.


MR: What about competitive rules? Men, they’re going to change the three-point line distance, reset the shot clock differently, what’s on the horizon for the women?


LH: Well, women’s basketball actually also, the shot clock reset.


MR: The 20?


LH: Yep.


MR: Yeah, okay.


LH: Yep. Yeah. Other things on the horizon? Well, certainly, on the women’s basketball side with our rules committee is consideration in the future as relative to the three-point line, if that should be pursued or not. Interestingly, that was a pretty… it was a hotly-debated issue this past rules cycle, but the women’s, the Women’s Basketball Rules Committee chose not to pursue that. There’s some question just really… there wasn’t enough data or, or evidence or information that… how that would positively impact the women’s game relative to offensive scoring, relative to field goal percentage and otherwise. So this is an example I think of where we have different… we have a men’s basketball rules committee and a women’s. And you may have some separation of… separation or differences of conclusion about what’s best for the game.


Now that being said, as we look forward to the future, the use of technology during the games is certainly on the horizon. And that’s actually been communicated to the membership that that will be a point of focus over the next rule cycle. So we have two years now before the next rule cycle comes to a conclusion. But that is in concert, frankly, as this has been examined already and continues to be with the Men’s Basketball Rules Committee. And then I think as you, as we continue to look at different aspects, potentially of the, of the International game, are there aspects of that, that women’s basketball may, may want to look at and bring in, but technology is going to be a lead one.


MR: Sure. You talked about the development of your own career and that mindset. I asked the question about being in the West Coast Conference, and then back here and Indie. If you were to write yourself a letter that your younger self could read once you got into this industry, give me some like, interesting topics you would say, I wish I knew.


LH: You know, I wish I knew that how much the people and the relationships really matter. And that, you know, I think that’s one of those things that as you are mentored as a young professional people relay that to you often but until I, personally when I, as I went through my career, I don’t think I truly appreciated that as much until later. There’s relationships that I forged early in my career just with the sense of working closely with someone or helping the membership with something that to this day you still can go back to that person. I don’t think I ever recognized that as a young professional that that would be the case.


I would remind myself to just kind of enjoy the ride, that there’s going to be a lot of failures and successes, and that’s all part of the learning and the experience of the process. I mean, in that regard, I don’t know if I, I… because of all of that and all of those things had to happen in order to get me to the place I’m at today, I don’t know if necessarily I would change anything. Now, in the moment, I probably would have been like, “This is the most horrible thing happening.”


MR: I was going to say, what would you point to as a big road bump in your… or speed bump in your own career that ended up being beneficial to motivation, long-term success?


LH: Yeah, you know, there’s probably a, there’s probably a lot of things. You know, like I would point to example, you know, I was here at the NCAA for 16 years prior to my going out to the membership at the West Coast Conference. And there were points in time kind of, you get to these crossroads as to, “Should I stay here? Or should I go out to the membership? Should I pursue this type of position? Or should I stay? And I chose to stay. Now looking back, should I, should I potentially have left the national office earlier? Yeah. But because I stayed, I got the opportunity to go to the West Coast Conference, which for me was a, was an eye, a great situation, the opportunity to work with Jamie Zaninovich who was the commissioner at the time, who was one of the more innovative commissioners that was rebuilding a conference, a basketball-centric conference, very successful academically and athletically in many different sports and to go to a smaller conference in the sense that going in first as a senior associate commissioner, chief operating officer, I could get experience of everything day to day perfectly positioned me to be a commissioner. Now, if I had left earlier and gone somewhere based on my previous work I was doing, I would have continued to probably be in the governance legislative compliance area and probably would not have elevated to the commissioner position as early as I did.


MR: Interesting. What did we not ask in this conversation that you want the membership to know about the trajectory of women’s basketball?


LH: I would want everyone to know that our game is in a phenomenal place, that there’s a lot of energy and excitement. We’re coming off of three sold out women’s Final Fours. We’re coming off a year of which Division II had a multi-overtime championship game. We’re… we are, continue to position ourselves and elevate our game in the sense that our student athletes are having a tremendous life-changing experience. And it’s a lot of fun for fans and it’s about building a community.


MR: Thanks so much for doing this.


LH: Thank you.