Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: The NCAA Needs to Invest in Women’s Sports

August 04, 2021

Criticism for Mark Emmert and the NCAA has ramped up over the past year, and with good reason. The stark difference in way the mens and women’s basketball tournaments were handled became a national story and led to the NCAA hiring a law firm (Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP) to investigate equity issues.

In the meantime, more issues popped up with the women’s volleyball tournament and the Women’s College World Series. Yet, with the results of the investigation still pending, the NCAA’s Board of Governors gave Emmert an extension.

Well, the results are in — in the form of a 113-page report — and they don’t reflect kindly on Emmert and the NCAA. Here’s the money quote from the summary of the report:

“The primary reason, we believe, is that the gender inequities at the NCAA—and specifically within the NCAA Division I basketball championships—stem from the structure and systems of the NCAA itself, which are designed to maximize the value of and support to the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship as the primary source of funding for the NCAA and its membership.”

Basically, the NCAA pours everything it can into the men’s basketball tournament while the women’s tournament gets the leftovers. As the report detailed, that was never more evident than last March when both tournaments were being held in independent closed environments.

The NCAA sponsors more sports than I even know. It would be impossible to assign equal resources to all of them, nor would it make sense. The men’s basketball tournament is what provides most of the NCAA’s budget for the year; it’s the most profitable piece of inventory the NCAA has. The NCAA absolutely should make it as big of a deal as possible. But that doesn’t make it OK to treat the women’s tournament as an afterthought.

The viewership numbers aren’t close to equal at this point, but interest in women’s sports, especially basketball, continues to rise and there is some serious potential for growth if the sport is provided that opportunity. I’ll let future Naismith Hall of Famer Candace Parker speak for me here with an answer she gave during a recent Q&A with GQ.

“I’m not the bozo who says ‘Yo LeBron makes 30 million and women should!’ Listen, I’m a realist,” Parker said. “I understand how capitalism works. But, I also understand how investment works. Scared money doesn’t make money. To see how something truly works you need to invest in it: that means time, money, energy, endorsements and picking up the phone.”

The KHF report enlisted an independent media expert named Ed Desser who found that the NCAA has seriously undervalued the women’s basketball tournament by lumping it in with 28 other NCAA championships as part of its television contract with ESPN. Desser’s team estimated the women’s basketball broadcast rights will be worth between $81 and $125 million in 2025, which is roughly three times what ESPN is paying the NCAA under the current agreement.

According to the report, the results of the NCAA’s focus on the mens’s basketball tournament as its money-maker “have been cumulative, not only fostering skepticism and distrust about the sincerity of the NCAA’s commitment to gender equity, but also limiting the growth of women’s basketball and perpetuating a mistaken narrative that women’s basketball is destined to be a ‘money loser’ year after year.”

I’m fortunate enough to cover one of the most successful and popular women’s sports team in the country — the Nebraska volleyball team. I see the kind of passion and fan support that is possible when a team of talented women is supported and marketed the way it deserves. The NIL revolution has shown us how marketable females athletes can be with the massive social media followings many of them have. Sabrina Ionescu captivated the country during a record-setting career at Oregon, and Paige Bueckers stepped right into those shoes as a freshman at UConn this past season.

Women’s basketball and volleyball are a long way off from generating the kind of revenue that football or men’s basketball provide to universities and the NCAA as a whole, but that gap won’t shrink without a concerted effort to make it happen. The coaches, student-athletes and fans of women’s sports deserve that effort. The men’s sports that dominate ratings weren’t always as popular as they are now; heck, the NBA Finals were shown on tape delay as recently as the 1980s. It will be a process, but women’s sports can be profitable.

The report put forth a wide array of suggestions that the NCAA can implement to “make the student-athlete experience far more equitable from the perspective of gender.” Among them are marketing the women’s basketball tournament as a stand-alone entity, using the “March Madness” brand for both the men’s and women’s tournaments and hosting both tournaments in the same location.

There are many others included in the report, but those are three that stood out to me. The first two are no-brainers in my mind, but the third is more questionable. Attempting to hold both tournaments in the same location presents some logistical questions as far as gym and hotel space for everyone involved. Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and UConn’s Geno Auriemma aren’t sold either according to the Associated Press, but they’re open to the idea at least, as am I. It’s certainly better than putting most of the NCAA’s resources into hosting the men’s tournament while leaving the women’s understaffed elsewhere.

The results of the KHF report shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s paid attention to college sports. It’s basically echoing the same message that coaches, athletes, fans and sports writers have been saying for some time: the NCAA needs to do better.

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