Welcome to the first ever women’s March Madness!
After four decades of playing in the Division I NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, the NCAA has finally decided to graciously grant their March Madness branding to women’s basketball players. If you didn’t know this wasn’t already the name, I don’t blame you. March Madness is March Madness, official branding or not, but this name change is a meaningful (if forced) step in the direction of a much-needed equity campaign that was triggered by, of all things, a TikTok.
Last year, around this time, as college basketball players prepared to play a mid-COVID tournament, Oregon forward Sedona Prince posted a video to TikTok and Twitter that immediately went viral. It showed the women’s tournament’s “weight room,” which consisted of one small rack of free weights as opposed to the men’s setup of a full gym, and caused immediate and widespread outrage.
This video alerted the NCAA to the severity of the inequality between the men’s and women’s tournaments (read: they couldn’t keep shortchanging the women’s tournament because now the public knew they were doing it). The name change is important, to be sure, but a full independent report was commissioned after the video came out which found that “the N.C.A.A.’s broadcast and corporate contracts, revenue distribution model, organizational structure and culture had conspired to create, normalize and perpetuate gender inequities.”
Thank God for TikTok. Women’s coaches and players have been fighting for equitable treatment for years, and this report triggered some meaningful changes in monetary distribution and non-monetary gaps. The women’s tournament includes a First Four this year, which allows 68 teams to qualify, as well as a restructured budget that includes improved facilities, accommodations, “swag bags,” and overall gameday experiences.
And before you rush to the comments to tell me that women’s games don’t make as much money or draw in as many viewers as men’s games, I’d like to remind you that the NCAA is, in name, a nonprofit dedicated to organizing and regulating college sports. It is not the NBA, and while it is a business, equitable treatment of male and female athletes within the same sport is well within the realm of financial possibility and arguably an ethical necessity. The supposed pillar of all things moral in college sports, it literally took years of demands for equality in the two tournaments and a public outcry over the weight room debacle for an investigation like this to be commissioned.
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Even despite the new changes, the NCAA won’t be getting off easy. Earlier this week, three congressional representatives sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert chastising him for “inadequate progress” in creating equity between the basketball tournaments. In the letter, they write that no structural leadership change has been made to address the inequality. This week, Buick began airing an advertisement in which the audio of Arike Ogunbowale’s legendary 2018 buzzer beater plays with text that reads “Over 40% of athletes are women, but they get less than 10% of the media coverage.” (Of course, our regular favorite Darren Rovell decided to comment on the ad and say women get less coverage during March Madness because there’s less madness, fewer upsets and the bracket is predictable. That’s all. It’s not the same product.” Which sounds like what a scripted devil’s advocate would say in a badly written skit about sexism in sports. Thanks for the commentary as always, Darren.) There’s growing demand in both the public and private sectors for the women’s tournament to receive more investment, coverage, and respect.
And again, for all those who love to say that the men’s tournament is more profitable and therefore deserves more money across the board, the NCAA actually severely undervalued the broadcast value of the women’s tournament at $6 million a year. The investigation found that it would likely be worth $80 million annually — thirteen times more than the NCAA’s valuation — the next time the rights come up for sale.
NCAA basketball revenue distribution is based solely on men’s team’s performances from schools, which drives schools to invest more in their men’s basketball programs to get more money. It’s a cycle that the NCAA doesn’t seem particularly interested in actually breaking.
This year’s tournament will see some of these new changes implemented, but the fight continues for women’s basketball coaches and players in gaining recognition from their own organization.