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Weight rooms, swag, and the ‘March Madness’ brand: How the NCAA is shortchanging women’s basketball

March 23, 2021, 12:56 PM UTC
Mercer vs South Carolina
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - MARCH 21: Victaria Saxton #5 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket over Sierra Votaw #20 of the Mercer Bears in the first round game of the 2021 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on March 21, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

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Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Congress forms a ‘single parents caucus,’ women’s soccer scores a landmark broadcast deal in the U.K., and gender disparities plague the NCAA tournaments. Have a great Tuesday.

– Competitive disadvantage. After a year with no NCAA tournaments, Americans and college basketball fans across the world were thrust back into March Madness this past weekend as men’s and women’s play got underway. Underdogs triumphed, brackets were busted, and I suddenly found myself deeply invested in the outcome of a game between Texas and Abilene Christian, a school I’d never heard of. (The Longhorns fell victim to the upset, 53-52). The action did not disappoint—but the inequality between the men’s and women’s tournaments surely did. 

It all started on Thursday, when Stanford sports performance coach Ali Kershner tweeted about the disparity between training equipment given to women’s teams—some yoga mats and a tower of dumbbells—and the men, who had access to a state-of-the-art weight room. Initially, the NCAA blamed “limited space” in San Antonio’s convention center, which measures 514,000 square feet. Later, Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s VP of women’s basketball, apologized for “[falling] short this year,” and the organization upgraded the women’s facilities, adding strength machines and other gear. 

But there were disparities in other resources too, like food, swag bags, and COVID tests

Parsing these types of differences always prompts scrutiny of tournament revenue. There’s no doubt the men’s tournament mints money. Its 22-year TV deal alone is worth $19.6 billion. Meanwhile, ESPN paid $500 million over 14 years to broadcast the women’s tournament as part of a bundle of 24 other sports championships.

But the popularity of the women’s game is skyrocketing. In-person attendance was on the rise pre-pandemic, superstars like Sabrina Ionescu elevated the sport’s profile, and TV viewership is up; more than 3.6 million people watched the 2019 championship, a 24% increase from 2016. 

Still, it seems the NCAA is not doing all it can to promote the women’s game. As The Wall Street Journal reports, women’s teams take home zero dollars for a run in the tournament, while a 2019 tournament appearance for a men’s team earned the team’s athletic conference at least $280,000, with the payments coming over six-year rolling periods. 

Holzman told the Journal that discussions about giving women’s teams a similar bonus had not yet reached “the level” of governing bodies that could institute such a change. 

What’s more, the NCAA is withholding a benefit that could increase the value of the women’s tournament at little—or no—cost. The association for years has reserved its powerful ‘March Madness’ brand for the men’s tourney, even though its trademark for the moniker extends to women’s games. The NCAA told the Journal it would consider using March Madness logos as it determines “the best way forward for women’s basketball.”

All this would sting in normal years, but it’s especially painful coming at the end of a season in which the NCAA has championed equality and togetherness. Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s celebrated coach, called on the organization to do better: “It is…time for the NCAA leadership to reevaluate the value they place on women.”

Claire Zillman

The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


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