Q&A: The Rise of Women’s Basketball, Through the Eyes of a UVA Legend

April 11, 2024 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

Debbie Ryan had a literal front row seat to history during a remarkable women’s college basketball season. 

A month before a record 18.7 million people tuned into the national championship game between the University of South Carolina and the University of Iowa on Sunday, Ryan, the University of Virginia’s legendary former women’s basketball coach, counted among a record 11,975 fans at John Paul Jones Arena for UVA’s game against fifth-ranked Virginia Tech. 

Ryan sat courtside that night as the Cavaliers upset the Hokies before the largest crowd to ever watch a women’s college basketball game in the state of Virginia.

“An incredible atmosphere,” Ryan said. “And I was just so happy for our women to step up and win that game.”

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That scene on March 3 was part of UVA’s contribution to the great rise of the sport. Women’s college basketball in 2023-24, across the board, saw an increase in attendance, ticket sales and television viewership



To put the popularity in perspective, UVA Today caught up with Ryan. After receiving a master’s degree from the University’s School of Education and Human Development in 1977, Ryan coached the Cavaliers for 34 seasons, winning 739 games, 11 Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championships and three times advancing the team to the Final Four. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

Debbie Ryan with Carla Williams

Debbie Ryan, with UVA Director of Athletics Carla Williams to her left, was honored this season at JPJ as part of National Girls and Women in Sports Day. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Ryan’s former players include South Carolina coach – and three-time national champion – Dawn Staley and Big East commissioner – and former WNBA president – Val Ackerman, a UVA alumni duo who have added significantly to the growth of women’s basketball.

Q. What do you see as a main reason behind the recent rise of women’s basketball?

A. Behind all of this, people forget, years ago (in 2013), one of our own, Val Ackerman, wrote a white paper about how to make women’s basketball more palatable to fans. And it was extraordinary. They made all the changes, and here we are. You can see that the women’s game has evolved into more of a fast-paced, open type of game. It’s got new rules. And the rules are great. 

Val deserves a lot of credit. She’s a genius. I mean, she was a Rhodes Scholar candidate at UVA, she started the WNBA with the blessing of (former NBA commissioner) David Stern. She’s just a force. 

Q. What stood out to you about the buzz of this past season?

A. The evolution of the female athlete has been going on since way back in 1975, where you’re developing a bigger, stronger, more skilled player. So, these kids have female role models now with the WNBA and that’s who they emulate. They have all these people to actually follow and get them inspired. There’s just a lot more interest in women’s sports in general. 

Team groups around Ryan who holds a basketball

Ryan, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, led the Cavaliers to 739 wins over 34 seasons. (UVA Athletics photo)

And it’s hard to say why it switched this year, other than the phenomenon of people like Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers and Angel Reese. They became more visible and people wrote about them and people showed video about them and, all of a sudden, all of these families who had young female athletes started to pay attention. And then, everybody started to pay attention because the NBA started to pay attention to them and started talking about it. I mean, LeBron James talks about woman athletes all the time. And you can see that’s genuine. It’s not made up. It’s not fake. It’s genuine. 

Q. What goes through your mind when you see the record number of television viewers attached to games from this past women’s NCAA Tournament?

A. It’s confirming. Any women’s basketball fan who goes back to previous eras will tell you that it’s always been this exciting. And it has been. It hasn’t been as competitive across the board like the men, because the men have had many more years to develop that, but it’s certainly heading in that direction.

A wide shot of John Paul Jones showing the almost 12,000 people crowd
A crowd of 11,975 was at John Paul Jones Arena on March 3 for the UVA-Virginia Tech contest, making it the most attended women’s basketball game ever in the state of Virginia. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

But the top 25-to-50%, maybe 60% of teams are highly competitive and they’re spending money on women’s basketball and it’s paying off.

Q. You were at the front of a ton of women’s basketball success at Virginia. How was the sport marketed during your time as coach?

A. They put money into things that other people didn’t – like promotions – and they cared about the attendance. They knew they had something special with the Dawn Staley years (1988 to 1992, which included three Final Fours) and the Burge twins. That whole crew – Dawn, Tammi Reiss, the Burge twins, Audra Smith, Melanee Wagener, Dena Evans and Tonya Cardoza – they were just such relatable teams to the regular public and our fabulous fans.  

And they continued it through the 1990s. They said, “We need to promote the women and we need to try to fill U-Hall.” And it went all the way back to Kim Record and “Hot Dog Night.”

Women have been kept down for a long time. And most of it back in the day was a lack of funding, always the second-class citizen, but Virginia was out in front back then.

Q. You’ve called Dawn the “face of women’s basketball.” What from her time at UVA can be traced to her success now? 

A. I go back to when she chose Virginia. Dick Weiss, an award-winning sports writer in Philadelphia (Staley’s hometown), said, “This was a great choice for Dawn Staley because she’s going to get not only a great program to play in, but she’s going to have a chance for a great education.”

Black and white photo of Dawn and Debbie Ryan

After coaching Dawn Staley at UVA, Debbie Ryan has remained close to her former point guard. Staley, who won three gold medals as a Team USA player, is now the Olympic team’s coach. (UVA Athletics photo)

And Dawn made the most of it because she came in here not really wanting to communicate much and she left here with all the communication skills she needed. (Staley graduated with a degree in rhetoric and communication studies.) And you can see that she makes really good decisions. Part of that is what Virginia instills in you. And she’s become outspoken about a lot of social justice issues and things like that now. And before she was at Virginia, that probably would have never happened. 

The thing that people love about Dawn is that she can communicate with anybody. And she makes everyone feel welcome. And she’s not looking at your age or your race or anything.

Q. The current UVA women’s basketball program is coming off a season in which it knocked off four ranked opponents and made the postseason for the first time since 2018. What do you think about the future of the program under coach Amaka “Mox” Agugua-Hamilton?

A. I think she’s doing a fabulous job. And I talk to Mox all the time. Coaching at Virginia isn’t always the easiest, but it really teaches you about life and things in general and I think Mox has done a great job of navigating the transition from one coach to another. 

I think she’s going to be a tremendous talent here. The ups and the downs are the hardest part when you’re relying on young players and players from a different coach, and she has experienced some great highs and then some lows. And I told her, “You’ve done a great job.” 

She’s always terrific with her handling of the fans – and the fans love her – and the program itself, and the media. She’s very straightforward. That’s what I like about her the most. 

I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about coach Mox at all. She’s going to blow it out of the water.



Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications