Conversation: WBCA’s Smith Discusses the Pink Zone

Hartford vs. Marist

How could you miss an entire week of pink uniforms in women’s college basketball? The increasingly-popular Pink Zone initiative recently wrapped up its third year. The mission is the same: to assist in raising breast cancer awareness on the court, across campuses, in communities and beyond. But the numbers are growing. Results are still trickling in, but the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association expects to set records for total participants and funds raised in 2009.

The passion for this initiative stems from the fact that several coaches have battled breast cancer. Perhaps the most notable of these is Kay Yow, the former N.C. State coach who passed away in January. Yow helped pioneer the Pink Zone, and now it’s her lasting contribution. The WBCA encourages the Pink Zone participants to support the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund.

Progress Avenue recently chatted with Megan Smith, the Manager of New Initiatives for the WBCA, about the Pink Zone:

Progress Avenue: Kay Yow was definitely a popular coach who championed breast cancer awareness and research. How did she help drive interest and participation in the Pink Zone?

Megan Smith: I think when she went through her third bout, a lot of the women’s basketball community at that point really rallied around her. This initiative started in 2007 and had 120 participants, and last year over 1200. So I think that was the big push the second year, rallying behind Coach Yow when she was battling it for the third time. With her passing, probably the biggest thing was more and more schools are donating to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund.

After her memorial service and seeing that she was such a humble and special person, that inspired so many people across the nation. I think a lot of people felt obligated to help the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. And the women’s basketball community’s response was incredible. All the schools that were involved really went over and beyond with a lot of their Pink Zone events. It was just really neat to see everything come together.

N.C. State coach Stephanie Glance

PA: Taking an entire week to “go pink” is something that’s hard to miss in women’s college basketball. How much does this truly unified effort help in achieving the initiative’s goals?

Smith: It’s hard to put into words what it accomplishes across the country with women’s basketball, but it was part of Coach Yow’s life’s work. To see all the teams rally behind it was just really special.

I think the Pink Zone surpassed everyone’s expectations. We had a great response from all the women’s basketball teams, and high schools, middle schools, AAU teams. So we’ve branched out and we want as many participants as possible to get involved in the initiative.

Coach Yow looked at her battle against cancer as a blessing, because she thought she was at a platform to reach young girls for breast cancer awareness. She just took advantage of that. It’s amazing that she looked at it as a blessing and used it as a platform.

University of Tennessee

PA: When a college team signs up to participate, what are some of the things they’re expected to do? And how does the WBCA support their involvement?

Smith: We provide the framework and the direction. We try to educate them as best we can on what the initiative is about. But they make their event their own. That’s a really neat part of the initiative.

We have February Frenzy, which was ESPN’s coverage of the Pink Zone, on February 15 and 16. We had a mid-major game – Hartford vs. Marist – and I was so impressed with their marketing plan. A lot of schools will get keynote sponsors for the Pink Zone event. They’ll recognize breast cancer survivors at halftime.

Obviously N.C. State does an incredible job with their games; they call it Hoops 4 Hope. They do this huge halftime ceremony. They’ll do auctions, raffles, and just pink out the arena.

I talked to the coach from Arkansas State the other day. This is one of my favorites from the Pink Zone week. They had a hero roster for their Pink Zone game. Right before tipoff they had on their pink shaded uniforms and when they took off their shooting shirts, the hero roster came out to shake hands with both teams. And the home team, Arkansas State, had made special jerseys, and on the back of each player’s jersey was the name of a survivor.

We have ideas from 1500 participants. So there’s a lot of good ideas out there. We have a list on our Web site with different ideas that schools have come up with across the country.

PA: The WBCA’s charity of choice is the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. Does all the money raised from the individual schools go to that particular fund?

Smith: We just encourage people to give to our official charity, the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. There are plenty of schools out there that have a local cancer center. There are people who have raised money for their coach or someone in their community to donate money for their treatment. There’s still some schools, from the first year, that have a partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

PA: You also have an entire merchandising line as part of the Pink Zone, including Nike’s Kay Yow Collection. The positive is that it’s a year-long offering. So is merchandising a big fundraiser for you?

Smith: Nike was so generous, as far as $2 from each item is donated to the Fund. I don’t know exact numbers, but I know that they have sold out on a handful of ocassions and had to produce more, which is awesome and obviously generating a lot of revenue for the Fund.

We also get a lot of phone calls from people wanting to get involved in the merchandising end of things. Russell is the official apparel of the Pink Zone. But then you have Nike, which is a founding partner of the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. I think they see that we have the entire women’s basketball community involved in this. They see a big upside in it as well. We even have Jostens, which has Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund jewelry collection.

It’s just really neat to see it transcend into the merchandise realm. They’ve been so helpful, and it’s nice to get that kind of exposure for the Pink Zone and the Fund.

Brimfield High School

PA: When the Pink Zone first started, the concentration was on college sports. However, there have been several high school programs that have stepped up to do their part. Does your organization help the high school squads as well?

Smith: Right now we have the NCAA waiver, which allows teams to wear the pink uniforms. The NCAA has been great in allowing that to make the initiative as successful as it is. We want to have something similar for high schools, because I think they do run into some road blocks. High school is a little bit different because they have their high school state associations. We have to go through each state. But we would love to have a waiver in place for high schools to wear pink jerseys.

High schools have been unbelievable this year. I just got a donation from a high school in New Mexico. They raised over $5,000. We would love for more high schools to get involved, more middle schools. We had some involved this year. And AAU teams are starting to dedicate tournaments to the Pink Zone. I have someone from the Basketball Academy already planning next year for their Pink Zone initiative for kindergarten to sixth grade.

Coach Yow’s vision was for a nation of coaches to rally behind this cause. She was a collegiate coach so that’s where it started, but she envisioned it being everyone involved with the game.

Photo credit: WBCA