As Women’s Basketball Grows, Equity Is Trying to Catch Up

As Women’s Basketball Grows, Equity Is Trying to Catch Up

March 29, 2023

In Seattle, there was enough black and gold in the arena to turn it into Iowa-by-the-sea. (And enough Sue Bird jerseys to serve as a reminder of who has been the building’s regular resident.) In Greenville, S.C., the vocal crowds were overwhelmingly clad in red — as if unbeaten South Carolina, the reigning champion, needed any advantages beyond forward Aliyah Boston, its relentless rebounding and a stifling defense.

The N.C.A.A.’s experiment of winnowing the usual four regional sites for the Division I women’s basketball tournament down to two this year — and packing eight teams into two cities — may have created a travel burden for some teams, but the four-day basketball fiestas on opposite ends of the country seem to be an idea worth holding on to.

Attendance for the regional semifinals and finals topped 85,000, more than 35 percent higher than last year’s combined attendance in Bridgeport, Conn.; Wichita, Kan.; Spokane, Wash.; and Greensboro, N.C.

“Kudos to the creativity, to see what we can draw,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said begrudgingly, not caring for playing a veritable road game for a spot in the Final Four any more than she liked the whistles that sent her players parading to the bench with foul trouble in Monday’s loss to South Carolina.

It has been two years since the inequities between men’s and women’s college basketball, which had been hiding in plain sight for decades, were laid bare by a video of the paltry weight lifting equipment at the women’s tournament and sparked national outrage.

The N.C.A.A. commissioned a report by the civil rights lawyer Roberta Kaplan that highlighted systemic inequities and suggested remedies to help the women’s game thrive amid its increasing popularity. But the path of women’s basketball growth, whether it’s a race to catch up to the men’s game or evolving into something that’s distinct alongside it, is not exactly clear.

“There’s some pressure to build it the same as the men,” said Tara VanDerveer, the long-tenured Stanford coach. “But when you have a chance to build something, you should build it the way you want to build it.”

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A number of quick fixes were made last year. They were mostly easy and obvious: expanding the women’s tournament from 64 teams to 68, matching the men’s field, and using March Madness branding for both events, which the N.C.A.A. had previously resisted. The N.C.A.A. also beefed up staffing for the women’s tournament, paid referees the same as in the men’s tournament and made sure players in both tournaments received the same swag bags filled with T-shirts, caps, towels and other branded merchandise.

The spending gap between the tournaments, which had been $35 million, according to the report, was narrowed by millions last year.

A notable change this year in both tournaments has been on television when the ball stops bouncing. One commercial after another features prominent faces in the men’s and women’s games. There’s South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley pitching supplemental health insurance alongside the recently retired Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski; the former Gonzaga star Chet Holmgren hawking cellphone coverage with the former South Carolina standout and current W.N.B.A. star A’ja Wilson; or Stephen Curry, the Golden State star, peddling sports apparel with Boston and Staley.

That sort of synergistic branding is something Kaplan’s report urged the N.C.A.A. to seek with its advertising and broadcast partners.

Charlie Baker, the new N.C.A.A. president, will have a decision to make in the coming months about the direction of the women’s tournament as its media rights come up for bid.

The current contract with ESPN, which expires next year, includes the broadcast rights to the women’s basketball tournament along with more than two dozen other N.C.A.A. championship events, including the baseball and softball World Series, the volleyball tournaments and the men’s basketball National Invitation Tournament. The network paid the N.C.A.A. $41.8 million in 2021, according to the Kaplan report.

The negotiations come at a time when interest in the women’s game is surging, with increased attendance and television ratings. In addition to the record crowds last weekend, this year’s tournament also set a record for attendance in the first and second rounds, which are played on the home courts of the 16 top-seeded teams.

The Kaplan report suggested that if the rights to the women’s basketball tournament were sold separately, they could be worth between $81 million and $112 million in 2025. But Mark Emmert, the former N.C.A.A. president, told The New York Times last year that even if those figures were accurate, there were other considerations. “It’s not just about money,” he said. “It’s about making sure we can use our championships to promote these amazing athletes.”

The suggestion is that perhaps the N.C.A.A. would take less to broadcast a prized commodity like women’s basketball in exchange for ensuring that, say, the lacrosse championships were also being broadcast on a national network.

The N.C.A.A. has hired Endeavor, a media rights consulting firm that has worked on recent media rights deals with the Big Ten and Big 12 Conferences, to assist with negotiations. Its agreement with the N.C.A.A. runs through June, according to the Sports Business Journal.

If future revenue balloons, as many expect, there will be even greater cries for the N.C.A.A. to adopt a similar model for the women as for the men in distributing tournament revenue. The N.C.A.A. will distribute $170 million, or about 27 percent of the total payout, to its conferences through a formula that rewards them for their performance in the men’s tournament. Revenue from the women’s tournament is distributed evenly across the 32 conferences.

Though a revenue distribution system based on wins in the women’s tournament may not have a drastic impact on any school’s bottom line, it can be argued that adopting the men’s model, which has been in place since the 1980s, would incentivize schools to invest in women’s basketball the way they have for the men.

The N.C.A.A. transformation committee, tasked with rewriting the N.C.A.A. constitution last year, urged that the model for men’s basketball should be used for more sports in Division I.

Thus far, no action has been taken.

“Despite all the changes that have occurred since the Kaplan report, there’s been no change in revenue distribution,” said Amy Perko, the chief executive of the Knight Commission, an advocacy group that focuses on reform in college athletics. “The N.C.A.A. must operate in a gender-equitable way in how it runs its championships and the financial incentives it creates. It shouldn’t take more than 500 days to eliminate this inequity.”

The suggestion in the Kaplan report that has generated the most blowback is that the men’s and women’s Final Fours be held in the same city. It was an idea floated a decade ago by Val Ackerman, a former W.N.B.A. commissioner who is the current Big East commissioner, and who was hired by the N.C.A.A. to make recommendations for the women’s game.

The Kaplan report suggested that combined Final Fours would allow media partners to aggressively cross-promote, raise demand for women’s Final Four tickets, enhance media coverage and prevent men’s tournament sponsors from ignoring the women.

This idea, though, makes some women’s basketball advocates with a long memory cringe.

In 1989, the men’s Final Four was played in Seattle. The women’s Final Four was in nearby Tacoma. It may as well have been in the Gobi Desert. Few reporters made the 30-mile drive to cover the women’s tournament. The announced attendance at the final was 9,578. The next year the Final Four was played in Knoxville, Tenn., which drew more than double Tacoma’s crowd — even without host Tennessee among the semifinalists.

“It was very second-class,” said VanDerveer, who attended the Final Four in 1989 after her Stanford team had been eliminated. She added that comparisons will always be inevitable, as long as women play their championships in a basketball arena and men in a football stadium.

It would be some time before the N.C.A.A. is able to hold Final Fours in the same city since sites are set through 2030. This year, though, they are in the same state — the men in Houston, the women in Dallas — which may be close enough to notice some contrasts.

For one, Connecticut is missing from the women’s national semifinals for the first time in 14 years, but is the favorite among the men’s Final Four, which includes three newbies — Miami, Florida Atlantic and San Diego State.

The women, at least, have a telegenic match up: South Carolina against Iowa and its scoring sensation, Caitlin Clark. Louisiana State and Virginia Tech will play on the undercard.

And perhaps in a sign that something different isn’t necessarily something less, the market for seats for the women’s Final Four is heating up — a get-in-the-door ticket for the semifinals is about $200. For the men, it’s about $50.

Kris Rhim and Jeré Longman contributed reporting from Greenville, S.C. Talya Minsberg and Kurt Streeter contributed reporting from Seattle.

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