As March Madness begins, it’s time for women to play for the money

March Madness arrived with visions of Cinderella teams dancing in the heads of sports directors. Survive and thrive, they say, and the conference revenue will flow. For schools in “basketball-focused” conferences, that’s when they get their money’s worth.

But for women’s basketball teams (even high-profile teams like South Carolina), there’s a different set of expectations buried deep in NCAA culture. Athletes and teams are excited about the opportunity to compete for an NCAA championship, but the pressure is different. Unlike men, there are no financial expectations. From the perspective of many in college athletics, the men’s tournament simply means more — more money, more attention, more institutional prestige.

As March Madness begins, why shouldn’t they have the same expectations for women?

Entire Division I conferences have been built on creating depth and success in the men’s basketball tournament. As one president told me, “All the decisions we make are geared toward that (men’s basketball postseason success)“. Men’s revenue confirms: each win in the 2023 tournament is worth about $340,000. If four teams from the same conference win and qualify, the conference receives $1.36 million over a 6-year average (2108-23) in the least. While it’s not FBS football money, it still counts.

The old logic is simple to follow: a basketball-centric conference is one where men’s basketball is a major focus and source of pride for its member institutions, and where the conference as a whole is known for producing high-quality basketball teams and players.

Conferences have always been built around the strength and potential of men’s basketball and football alone. It is time for this to evolve.

Enter the Kaplan report

After Sedona Prince posted her famous 2021 TikTok video about the differences in men’s and women’s tournament experiences, the NCAA commissioned a detailed three-part report focusing on the organization’s lack of growth in promoting and supporting the women’s game.

It is referred to as the “Kaplan report,” the report noted Many differences in how the organization viewed and treated women’s basketball compared to men’s basketball.

A sample:

  • Men’s basketball has a dedicated senior vice president and 11 full-time staff members.
  • Women’s basketball has one vice president and 7 permanent, including the vice president and her executive assistant;
  • Men’s basketball employs outside contractors like Populous, who provide logistics, signage and manufacturing services ($942,688 total in 2019 alone).
  • The female side usually does not (except in 2021).
  • The differences in the amount spent by each league are staggering—in 2019, the NCAA spent $53.2 million on the men’s tournament and $17.9 million on the women’s.

It is clear that the NCAA was heavily focused on increasing revenue from the men’s tournament – thus justifying the imbalances in personnel.

Knight Commission Executive Director Amy Perko says they were told the NCAA Transformation Committee will look at equity issues in its final report, but simply “recognized that the distribution formula needs to change. It remains bogged down in committee review. By this April, two distribution cycles (with more than $330 million distributed) will have passed since the NCAA board received Kaplan Hecker’s equity report and her recommendation to change the unequal distribution formula.”

Slow to adapt and change

While Transformation is the word often used to describe this new era of college athletics, it’s clear that very little of it is focused on addressing the growing popularity of women’s sports. Women’s basketball, volleyball, and softball lead the viewership trends and, if leveraged as detailed in the Kaplan, Hecker & Fink report, could yield $1.2 billion over 10 years to NCAA funds.

Why isn’t the NCAA leadership, made up mostly of college presidents from across the Departments, taking advantage of this opportunity? Athletics presidents and directors love more money. Every conference, department and institution is always looking to increase its income. In particular, the ACC is in the middle of a very public debate about revenue – both earned and distributed.

One possible explanation for this intransigence may lie in the NCAA’s attitudes toward change in general. The structure of how conferences are put together has a foundation in men’s sports that only make money off of sexism, so that’s how we’re going to align conference membership. Our focus will be on the national media attention our men’s programs receive. There has been little movement to accommodate the remarkable changes in both the women’s sports media landscape and fan behavior.

Reminder: this is the same agency that is begging Congress for exemption and/or legislation on a number of items, including the NIL regulations.

How might conference membership and alignment work now that some institutions are putting more emphasis on their already successful women’s basketball programs? Simple. Apply the same analysis mentioned above: women’s basketball is a major focus and source of pride for its member institutions, and where the conference as a whole is known for producing high-quality basketball teams and players.”

You I see the College Game Day pregame show from Iowa City? It was electric.

Connecticut and Tennessee are great examples of teams that accelerated an institution’s national profile in the early 1990s. Today, superstars like Aliyah Boston, Angel Reese, Grace Berger, Cameron Brink and Caitlyn Clark are must-see TV when the their groups. Should South Carolina, LSU, Indiana, Stanford and Iowa get bigger shares in their conferences because they’ve had more tournament success recently? Or should the revenue be shared equitably to increase the depth of each conference?

It’s not just women’s basketball

You could ask the same of the Nebraska volleyball program or the Oklahoma softball program. These teams have had national appeal and draw huge audiences to their matches. Nebraska is planning an Aug. 30, 2023 volleyball game inside Memorial Stadium, hoping to draw the largest crowd in NCAA history. Chancellor Ronnie Green commented “now we are preparing for another great opportunity to fill the stadium and show the nation that the epicenter of collegiate volleyball is in Nebraska.” A bold vision, to be sure.

Many advocates are right to argue that raising the profile of women’s sport is a moral and ethical imperative. Title IX requires equal treatment of men and women in all aspects of their educational experience.

But maybe it’s a little more fundamental than that. If commissioners, athletic directors and presidents are leaving over $1 billion on the table, are these senior leaders performing their fiduciary responsibilities properly? Or are they wrapped up in perpetuating an inefficient and biased revenue model?

It’s time to start asking tough questions. It’s time for women to play – for the money.

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