BILLINGS — What’s this? A Montana-vs.-Montana State basketball doubleheader?
It’s been three years since the Bobcats and Grizzlies tangled in a twin bill on the hardwood. In 2021 the pandemic put the brakes on what had long been a fixture in the series, and last season’s games were split up at separate sites — and on different days — because of a TV deal with ESPNU.
But Saturday marks a return to normalcy as the teams renew their rivalry in back-to-back fashion at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula. Both games will be broadcast on the Montana Television Network. The women get things started at 2 p.m. and the men will follow at 7.
That’s right: women at 2, men at 7. It's as if nothing had ever changed.
Truly, these games are viewed each year as a celebration of college basketball at the top level in Montana, and revenue-wise they’re as important as anything the Cats and Griz do during hoops season — short of winning a game in the NCAA tournament. But if you want to add a wrinkle to the setup, here’s a thought: Let the women’s teams take the 7 p.m. primetime slot one of these days. What’s the harm?
In this sense, ladies first is an antiquated notion.
You’d be hard pressed to find two athletic directors more concerned with the well-being of their schools’ student-athletes than Montana’s Kent Haslam and Montana State’s Leon Costello, and I get the sense that they’re not averse to toggling the same-day matchups to add a little diversity.
And that’s great. Still, there would be questions to answer.
For starters, there’s the money piece. The men’s teams at both Montana and Montana State draw more fans than their female counterparts, so how would playing the men at 2 p.m. and the women at 7 affect the financial takeaway at the gate? Familiarity helps sell tickets.
The last time at Cat-Griz doubleheader was played in Missoula — on Feb. 1, 2020 — the men drew 7,040 fans and the women brought in 3,617. That’s nearly 11,000 fans for two basketball games in one day. And that’s some really good dough. Switching the timeslots could jeopardize that.
Besides, would the women’s teams even want the primetime slot to begin with? Both the Bobcats and Lady Griz are already accustomed to playing at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, and the UM men play their home games at 7 on those nights. As it stands, the doubleheader schedule is consistent with how things are lined up already.
It should be noted that Montana State played a home double-dip earlier this season on Nov. 18, when the women hosted North Dakota and the men welcomed NAIA Warner Pacific. Due to travel considerations, the men’s game was played first at 5:30 p.m. while the women took the court at 7:30. Total attendance for the games was 4,207.
Hey, at least there’s a precedent. And MSU is also looking into scheduling more nonconference doubleheaders, based in part on the success of the rivalry series.
To be sure, nothing is wrong with the Cat-Griz doubleheader setup as it is. Why find a solution for something that doesn’t need fixing? Typically you wouldn’t.
But women’s basketball is really popular across this state, and it might be worth it to let the likes of Montana’s Carmen Gfeller and MSU’s Darian White showcase their considerable skills under the bright lights of a primetime showcase on statewide TV.
Maybe, as athletic departments across the country rightly sing the praises of Title IX, it would be a nod to how far women’s athletics have come in the past 50 years. Heck, it could even be marketed that way to ensure as many people fill the seats as possible.
Late last year, a former Montana State athletic administrator named Ginny Hunt passed away. Hunt was instrumental in the advancement of women’s sports at MSU. Perhaps this line from a short biography about Hunt on Montana State’s website sums it up best: “At her first (Bobcat women's) basketball game, Hunt was one of 250 fans. At her last game as MSU’s women’s AD, there were 5,000.”
Giving the Montana and Montana State women’s teams a little more exposure on doubleheader day could serve as a nod to everything Hunt did — and everything women’s athletic administrators (and former players) have done and continue to do to foster equity and growth for women and girls everywhere.
My thoughts? Give it a shot. See how it works. It could end up being popular and productive and a welcome wrinkle to a great day of basketball. Bottom line, these doubleheaders are valuable for more than one reason. And they likely aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Ladies first, in this sense at least, is an antiquated notion. But you won’t find that out unless you try.