The glaring inequities in the NCAA’s investment in its Division I men’s and women’s basketball championships have hidden in plain sight for decades, until they exploded in public consciousness via photos shared on social media of a single dumbbell rack and stack of yoga mats that passed for training equipment in the 2021 women’s tournament bubble.
NCAA President Mark Emmert apologized and promised to do better. But the deep-seated disparities highlighted by players and coaches in everything from tournament marketing to athletes’ meals and amenities isn’t like to be remedied overnight.
The Indianapolis-based NCAA took another incremental step in narrowing the gap last week by unveiling comparable social media handles and hashtags, @MFinalFour and @WFinalFour, to supplant the longstanding @FinalFour that was exclusive to men. They complement recently redesigned logos that underscore the fact that starting with the 2022 championships there won’t be only one official NCAA Final Four, but an NCAA Men’s Final Four and an NCAA Women’s Final Four.
By extension, the trademarked “March Madness” brand will no longer apply only to the men’s tournament. The women will stage “March Madness,” as well.
The change is largely symbolic but no less significant, given the revenue-generating power of an established logo and social media presence in the cluttered media marketplace.
In the view of Lisa Campos, chair of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee, extending the March Madness trademark to the women’s tournament automatically elevates public perception and development of the sport.
“This is just the start when it comes to improving gender equity in the way the two Division I basketball championships are conducted,” said Campos, who is also athletic director at Texas-San Antonio, when the decision was announced in September.
The latest step of aligning the social media handles is one of several recommendations included in a comprehensive external review of gender-equity issues related to NCAA championships that was spurred by last spring’s athlete-led reports of the substandard weight rooms and amenities for women competing in the 2021 basketball tournament.
It was also recommended by a “championship brand review” that the NCAA had commissioned from an international firm before the outcry over last season’s tournament inequities, according to NCAA associate director of communications Meghan Durham.
“Following that brand review and the completion of the external gender equity review, the NCAA is proactively updating all championships branding to be more gender inclusive, including the changes you see reflected in the Final Four logos and the expanded use of ‘March Madness’ to women’s basketball,” Durham explained in an email. “We look forward to continuing to grow and build on our initial steps across all sports.”
The NCAA commissioned the gender-equity review from the law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP last spring. It confirmed stark inequities in promotional spending, meals, coronavirus testing and staffing, as well. And it culminated in a blistering 114-page report issued in August that concluded the NCAA defaulted on its commitment to gender-equity by prioritizing its lucrative Division I men’s basketball tournament above all else.
The report castigated the NCAA for its treatment of the women’s event, which it concluded had stymied commercial growth of the tournament. And it recommended steps to narrow the gap, including staging the men’s and women’s Final Fours at the same location.
The NCAA has been chipping away at the report’s to-do list since last fall, starting with the relatively low-hanging fruit of branding.
The NCAA took a more significant step in November by expanding the women’s championships bracket from 64 to 68 teams, starting with the 2022 event, bringing opportunities for female basketball players in line with those of male.
Still to be addressed is the thornier question of whether the men’s and women’s Final Fours should be held at the same site. The Kaplan report said that doing so would allow for better cross-promotion of the men’s and women’s game and make it easier for corporate sponsors to back both tournaments.
Not all women’s coaches are convinced that’s the best way to grow women’s basketball. Moreover, hosting rights for separate Final Fours have been awarded through 2026:
The Men’s Final Four will be held this year in New Orleans, April 2 and 4. After that, it will be staged in Houston (2023), Phoenix (2024), San Antonio (2025) and Indianapolis (2026).
This year’s Women’s Final Four will be held in Minneapolis on April 1 and 3, followed by Dallas (2023), Cleveland (2024), Tampa (2025) and Phoenix (2026).
Responding to the Kaplan report’s recommendations on broadcasting contracts is likely to be equally complex. It concluded that financial inequity is built into existing multiyear broadcast deals, with the women’s tournament undervalued, hindering its ability to generate revenue from sponsors.
Nonetheless, the NCAA can’t afford to slow-walk its efforts to address gender-inequity in its champions. Doing so would risk legal action and potential federal intervention. In the wake of the Kaplan report, the law firm recommended the NCAA submit annual updates on its progress.