After social media shaming, NCAA tries to get gender equity right for 2022 March Madness

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For the first time since 2000, the NCAA women’s basketball tournament will have as many participating teams as the men’s—68, to be precise, starting with a “First Four” slate of games.

The expansion of the field, which was announced in November, is the most notable among a package of upgrades to the women’s event that the Indianapolis-based NCAA will unveil this month during the 40th anniversary of the women’s tournament.

Taken as a whole, they represent a multimillion-dollar makeup call by the NCAA after a University of Oregon player’s social media post at the outset of last year’s women’s tournament—showing a single dumbbell rack and stack of yoga mats that passed for a training equipment in the pandemic-mandated bubble—laid bare the organization’s decades-long practice of treating women’s basketball as inferior to men’s.

In response to the national outcry, the NCAA commissioned a law firm to conduct a gender-equity review of the tournaments. The finding of the Kaplan Hecker & Fink law firm, issued in a scathing, 114-page report in August, chronicled stark inequities in spending on marketing and promotion, players’ meals and services, event staffing and more.

Over the seven months since, the NCAA has started to right the numerous wrongs, giving top priority to inequities that directly affect athletes from Selection Sunday through the Final Four in Minneapolis on April 1 and 3.

Expanding the opportunities for women’s teams to take part was an obvious place to start.

Other changes will be less obvious to spectators, yet significant to players.

Among them: Starting this year, female players will get the same tournament gifts and mementos that male players get for participating in each round—such as a tournament backpack.

For the first time, all women’s Final Four teams will have their own players’ lounge at each hotel, as men have had for years. The women also will have access to a “family lounge” at their hotels, as the men traditionally have had, to visit with friends and relatives in a private place apart from the hotel lobby.

In a further nod to gender equity, there is no longer one trademark protected “Final Four” exclusively associated with the men’s event. From this year onward, there will be a Men’s Final Four and a Women’s Final Four, with identical logos and only different colors (gray for men, orange for women) setting them apart.

The NCAA is also investing more in the “fan experience” at the Women’s Final Four, decorating downtown Minneapolis with the giant inflatable trophies and 3D brackets that fans at men’s Final Fours often use as “photo op” backdrops.

In a media briefing summarizing this year’s changes, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt declined to put a price tag on the NCAA’s investment in closing its glaring gap in support for the women’s basketball tournament, other than to say, “it’s in the millions of dollars.”

“The work is not done,” Gavitt added. “There is more to do, and we look forward to doing more after this year’s championship.”

The biggest question still pending: Will the NCAA stage the men’s and women’s Final Fours in the same city, on the same weekend, as the Kaplan report recommended?

At the moment, that’s a bridge too far, said Nina King, chair of the NCAA Division I women’s basketball committee and Duke athletic director, who explained the NCAA first wants to evaluate the impact of the initial set of changes.

“The door is not shut,” King said, noting that the NCAA may consider other potential modifications such as staging the Final Fours in a single city but on separate weekends.

As a contractual matter, separate sites for the men’s and women’s Final Fours have been awarded through 2026. After this year’s event in New Orleans, the men’s Final Four will be staged in Houston (2023), Phoenix (2024), San Antonio (2025) and Indianapolis (2026).

The women will hold their 2023 Final Four in Dallas, followed by Cleveland (2024), Tampa (2025) and Phoenix (2026).

Two multimillion-dollar questions also remain unanswered.

One: With ESPN’s ratings for women’s basketball’s regular season games showing strong gains (up 46%, according to NCAA vice president of women’s basketball Lynn Holzman), how much more will the NCAA collect in rights fees when its current contract for airing the women’s Final Four (which is packaged with all NCAA championships other than men’s basketball) expires in 2024?

“We realize . . . those rights are likely undervalued and quite possibly significantly undervalued,” Gavitt said, noting that the current ESPN deal is 10 years old.

Two: Will the NCAA revise its current “performance-based” formula for disbursing more than $160 million annually for success in the men’s tournament, which represent powerful incentive for university athletic directors to continue investing heavily in the men’s game at the expense of the women’s.

The Knight Commission advocated doing so in September, as part of a five-point plan for restructuring the way college sports distributes more than $3.5 billion in annual revenue, with athletes’ health, safety, education and gender-equity at its heart.

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4 thoughts on “After social media shaming, NCAA tries to get gender equity right for 2022 March Madness

  1. Equity equity equity… DEI….

    Don’t be fooled by the misguided values these ideologies represent under the guise of compassion (they claim everyone must be treated the same and we all be received equal outcomes). Who wants such a bland society with no incentive to be excellent at something, not because of how you look on the outside but because of what you possess on the inside.

    Speak up people! Equality and responsibility are the values we should be promoting. Enough of the everyone gets a trophy mentality! DEI and “equity” are not good value for our culture!

    1. Poor little Donnie is so very sad because he knows any player on a NCAA women’s basketball team could hand him his butt on a platter and make him eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not to worry, Donnie, dear, no one is asking for a participation trophy, they are out there to play ball! Sit back in your chair and go back to sleep.

    2. Ouch Chris, that really hurt my feelings. Had you made one intelligent point, I might have rethought my stance. But instead you took the conversation to the level of a 2nd grader. Nice work.