Women's basketball a hard sell in 1975


David Ginsburg
January 26, 2005 5:15AM (UTC)

The game was a rout, the kind that causes viewers to flip to another channel long before the final buzzer.

What made it special was, for the first time, that was an option.

On Jan. 26, 1975, Immaculata beat Maryland 80-48 in the first nationally televised women's college basketball game. The independent Mizlou Television Network sold broadcast rights to more than 100 stations, providing unprecedented coverage to a sport still in its infancy.

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"My first three years at Immaculata, we wore skirts," says Rene Portland, then a senior for the Mighty Macs. "That was the first year we wore shorts."

Women now have their own pro basketball league, the WNBA, and ESPN broadcasts dozens of regular-season college games before supplying extensive coverage of the NCAA tournament in March.

It all began 30 years ago at Cole Field House.

"I'm extremely bullish on this," then-Mizlou executive director Vincent Piano said before the telecast. "It's a harbinger of things to come in women's sports."

His prediction ultimately proved to be correct. Back then, however, the game was a hard sell.

"Advertisers did not embrace it with open arms," says Victor Piano, who produced the broadcast and is now president of Mizlou. "It was perceived as a dismal failure from a financial standpoint."

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From a competitive standpoint, too. Immaculata never trailed and scored as many points in the second half as Maryland did the entire game. But the significance of the game transcended the final score.

"I can tell my grandkids I was part of history," says Monica Rogers Merkel, who scored two points for the Terrapins. "Somebody had to go first, and we were in the right place at the right time."

Eager to enhance awareness of its women's program, Maryland sold Mizlou the broadcast rights to two Atlantic Coast Conference games involving its fourth-ranked men's team with the provision that the network also telecast Maryland-Immaculata.

Immaculata defined women's basketball in the 1970s. The Mighty Macs, who compiled a 35-game winning streak while going 74-4 from 1972-74, proved to be far too talented and poised for a Maryland team that wilted under the bright TV lights.

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"We couldn't say, 'No,' but we knew we were in for a long day," says Dottie McKnight, who coached Maryland that day and now serves as placement coordinator for the university. "No one paid attention to us back then, so we were nervous and it showed. But I was proud the university had the guts to say, 'You will do it."'

For Maryland, it was a one-of-kind experience. It was just another game for Immaculata, a three-time national champion and the first women's basketball team to play in Madison Square Garden.

"We were thrilled to be a part of it, but I don't think anything fazed us at the time," recalls Portland, now an accomplished coach at Penn State. "We were used to playing in front of sellout crowds, in big games in large arenas. It was really just another game."

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Portland scored five points. Her name was Rene Muth back then, and that's not the only thing that's changed.

"Since then, I've gotten married, had four kids and spent 25 years at Penn State," she says. "Yet I remember it vividly."

Two years after that game, Immaculata de-emphasized its sports program, while Maryland became a national power under Chris Weller, who was an assistant to McKnight in 1975.

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"My recollection of that game is that we got killed, and that my mother called and told me she saw me on TV," Weller says. "She said I looked good in my green suit, but that I should have smiled more."

Thanks in part to that landmark game, Weller had plenty more chances to show off her wardrobe and flash a smile for the TV cameras. During a 27-year coaching career, she reached the Final Four three times and won 499 games _ including two against Immaculata.

That 80-48 loss to Immaculata 30 years ago was one of only 17 defeats that McKnight experienced during her four-year run at Maryland. But it probably was her most memorable game.

"After it was over," she says, "we all went, 'Whew,' and could appreciate being a part of history."

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David Ginsburg

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