BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- In the 2011-12 academic year, 187 Southeastern Conference women's athletics events were shown on television.
Among that group were softball games, basketball rivalries, swimming championships and gymnastics meets. Once events seen only by those in attendance, SEC women's athletics have become national matchups broadcast in prime time. The country's best female athletes now have the ability to be seen by millions of homes in the United States.
As ESPN's Carol Stiff can tell you, that wasn't always the case. Stiff, the current Vice President of Programming & Acquisitions at ESPN, explained just how different things were when she started in 1989.
"When I arrived 23 years ago, we only had ESPN and ESPN International (as TV channels). We had some contracts with the SEC, and we started programming a handful of games," she reflected.
As Stiff's role continued to evolve at ESPN, the ball started rolling. Put in charge of women's basketball programming a few years later, she began to look through the upcoming year's schedule for a "made for TV" matchup. Through a matter of timing and luck, the preeminent rivalry that lifted women's college basketball nationwide was born.
"Think about this," Stiff commented. "North Carolina had just won the National Championship (in 1994), and you figured UConn (University of Connecticut) was going to be up and coming," Stiff recalled. "The first ask was to North Carolina (for a UNC-UConn matchup), and they said no, so I went to Pat."
The "Pat" she speaks of is legendary Tennessee women's head coach Pat Summitt, who during her Hall of Fame career guided the Lady Vols to eight National Championships. However, Stiff's unique request was groundbreaking at the time, and Pat needed convincing.
"She hemmed and hawed a little bit," Stiff said. "I just laid low on the phone and tried to explain how this was a special opportunity." Eventually, Summitt would utter a sentence that summed up television's role in women's athletics perfectly.
"For the good of the game, I'll do it," Summitt answered.
The famous Tennessee-UCONN rivalry was born.
That singular, yet major step in elevating women's athletics (basketball in that case) begin a movement that continues today, growing not only the amount of games that you can watch, but the number of fans that support them.
In 2009, ESPN and the Southeastern Conference reached a milestone 15-year agreement, with ESPN entities agreeing to carry more than 5,500 SEC events - including football, men's and women's basketball, Olympic sports and SEC Championships.
Extensive coverage of women's basketball and Olympic sports are offered nationally through ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU and regionally through ESPN Regional Television, including both regular-season and conference championships. SEC-controlled games shown on ESPN networks have grown over 300 percent since 2007.
This unprecedented access took women's athletics even further, giving the average person not only the opportunity to follow contests, but to "stumble upon" the games they later come to love.
Georgia women's basketball head coach Andy Landers has seen this phenomenon first hand, and explained how just having the chance to see a women's athletics game can be the most important step.
"It has exposed us," Landers said. "Whether you mean to or not, often times when you're watching television, you'll watch a few minutes of something out of curiosity. I think we've captured the attention of a lot of people through that piece of curiosity. Every time I travel somewhere, someone walks up to me and tells me how much they enjoy watching us play on television and that they've become a Georgia women's basketball fan. It has allowed us to be exposed to the American population in a way that we could not have been exposed otherwise."
Landers' theory has proved true, as both ratings and the amount of coverage dedicated to women's sports have continued to grow. Stiff points to another key benchmark that helped elevate women's athletics on TV; ESPN's winning the rights to broadcast the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament.
"The tournament itself, gave it (women's basketball) a lot of coverage," Stiff commented. "The first year we did 24 of the 63 games (in the NCAA Tournament), and only did a few of the games in the first round. As renegotiations came up, we were able to get more rights to show more games."
However, having the games on television isn't always enough. The goal of bringing the fan into the event they are watching begins with the student-athletes themselves, and has showed to be a strong connection ESPN has successfully established to grow popularity.
Names such as Chamique Holdsclaw (Tennessee), Lolo Jones (LSU) and Jackie Traina (Alabama) and their individual stories have strengthened the game as whole. Jones' athletic career was recently featured in the SEC "Storied" documentary series, an ESPN Films production that premiered this past May. The SEC "Storied" series is another avenue which both ESPN and the conference have used to showcase women's athletics.
As Stiff explained, that is always the number one priority. "That is still our number one goal (telling the stories of student-athletes)," Stiff commented. "You build backwards. You crown the national champion and now you add on the regionals (NCAA) and conference tournament. That gives you more outlets. It has gotten massive."
Today, nearly every SEC championship celebration is seen on television. From Auburn capturing the 2011 SEC Soccer Tournament Championship, to Alabama winning the SEC's first National Championship in softball, the lasting images of those special moments are broadcast for the entire country to see.
As Stiff knows, perhaps better than anyone, it has been a truly memorable ride. When I asked her if she felt SEC women's athletics coverage would ever reach this point, she uttered her own answer that sums it all up perfectly.
"You hope," she told me.
In 2012, her hope is now reality.