Domination the result of greater resources
Strength rests on athletic diversity
When it comes to which conference is the powerhouse in women's sports, the conversation begins and ends with the SEC. Whichever women's sports the SEC does not dominate, it's likely only because the schools within the SEC have not yet committed themselves to dominating.
For example: It wasn't long ago that the SEC was perfectly mediocre in the (then up-and-coming) sport of women's softball. (The game was dominated at the Division I level by the Pac-10, which of course is now the Pac-12.) Fast-forward a few years and the SEC has now produced two of the past three NCAA champions; the one year in that stretch the conference didn't win it all -- in 2013 -- Tennessee was the runner-up.
So, yeah, if the SEC -- with its almost limitless resources thanks to football -- wants to dominate, the SEC will dominate. We can't overlook the brand exposure these women's programs receive because of the lucrative TV deals secured by their football counterparts. The financial piece is one that few other conferences -- and perhaps only the ACC, with its fantastic men's basketball -- can measure up with.
The chain of events looks like this: money pours in; facilities become sparkling and new; recruits flock to SEC schools.
Of course, the marquee women's sport is still basketball. And, top to bottom, the SEC is the most competitive league in the country, especially with the recent addition of Texas A&M, the 2011 NCAA champs. There are so few programs (perhaps none?) in the SEC that an opponent can count as an automatic win. In fact, last season, every team in the SEC finished with a double-digit win total -- meaning that in nonconference, most of these programs were really hard to beat. One could even argue that the only reason the SEC hasn't won more titles in women's basketball in recent years is because of the coaching transition at Tennessee -- from the legendary Pat Summitt to Holly Warlick. Now, with some top-notch recruiting classes, the Lady Vols seem poised for another run at another NCAA title.
But women's basketball and softball aren't the only sports the SEC dominates, although they certainly are the marquee women's sports. The SEC also routinely produces champions in women's gymnastics, swimming and diving and track and field.
And the conference could probably add to that list -- if it decided it wanted to.
It may not be the ideal time to make the case for the ACC, given that it produced just two national champions in women's team sports during 2013-14 and Maryland's lacrosse team took half that haul with it to the Big Ten, but the case for the conference rests in the quality of its quantity.
It is difficult to find a sport in which the ACC isn't competitive. And it is difficult to find a sport the ACC doesn't play.
Admittedly, it is tough to compete with the SEC when that conference decides it wants to take a sport seriously. Its ability to transform from a softball wasteland to arguably that sport's power base in short order is remarkable -- not just on the field but in facilities, crowds and compensation for coaches. At the same time, the SEC still punches below its weight in soccer, hasn't made a semifinal appearance in basketball since 2008 or volleyball since 2005 and doesn't sponsor sports like lacrosse, field hockey, ice hockey or water polo.
The ACC has signature sports. Louisville's arrival makes up for Maryland's departure in basketball, and no conference can match the depth of Final Four programs that exists with Duke, Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame. All reached the Final Four in the past decade. No other conference can say the same.
ACC women's soccer may be the single most competitive conference in any college sport. Its teams forced to sink or swim with Anson Dorrance's legendary North Carolina program, the ACC routinely sends multiple teams to the College Cup. Four of the top five teams in this season's NSCAA preseason Top 25 are from the conference.
But other conferences have bellwether sports, too. As much as showcase sports, the ACC's strength rests on its athletic diversity. It leads the way in field hockey and lacrosse, sports that rivals like the SEC and Pac-12 don't officially sponsor (schools from those conferences that do compete in those sports have until now played in leagues like lacrosse's Mountain Pacific). It isn't a power broker in sports like volleyball, softball or track, but it produces credible national programs and rarely embarrasses itself. It does just about everything and does most of it well.