By Jakob Fox
Many sports fans will argue that March is the best month of the year, and for good reason - we get March Madness! This year is the first time that the phrase March Madness will include both the men’s and women’s tournaments. While March Madness has been used when talking about the Men’s NCAA tournament since Brent Musberger began using the term in the early 1980s, this is the first year that the Women’s NCAA tournament will see the same branding. The NCAA announced this move as part of the changes that came from last summer’s 114-page gender equity in basketball championships report. The report was produced following the attention that was received during last year’s tournament. Last year, Oregon Ducks forward Sedona Prince helped to shine a spotlight on the inequities that were taking place between the men’s and women’s tournaments with her TikTok videos. Now the NCAA, along with sponsors and other companies, are trying to solve the gender equity issues.
So far through the first weekend of both tournaments, there seems to be progress with bridging the gap, but it is not enough for it to have long-lasting changes yet. While it is understandable that change will take more than one year, the NCAA is seeming to play catch-up for the women and just give them enough to match what the men get. Besides the two obvious changes with the branding of March Madness and the women’s tournament fielding 68 teams for the first time, the NCAA is only highlighting changes that seem like no-brainers. The NCAA made sure to include in a presentation from earlier this month that both men and women will receive gift boxes that include a notebook, a sleeveless hoodie, and a hat. They also mentioned that the women will now have a yogurt bar and pasta station to match the men’s, as well as have a ping-pong table, three big-screen TVs, and the same amount of pillows in the Final Four lounges – yes, the NCAA specified that there will be 28 pillows in the lounges. It is great to see the attempts and push for change, however, when watching the games from both tournaments it’s apparent how much more work needs to be done.
To start with, the men’s tournament is played in neutral host venues across the country with national branding of March Madness throughout. When you turn on a men’s tournament game, it is clear that this is a big game. The courts are all decked out with March Madness and NCAA logos and for every round, they changed parts of the court to showcase what round it was. For a casual fan, it was obvious they were watching the tournament. On the women’s side, that has not been the case. The first weekend of the women’s tournament has historically been held at the home arenas for the 1 through 4 seeds and continues this year. It is understandable to have this be the case given that the revenue is not the same but when you turn on a women’s tournament game there is not a lot to let you know you are watching the tournament. The courts and most of the signage around the court still display the host school, which in some cases is not even playing. There were digitally added March Madness logos for the TV broadcasts on the court, but they were relatively small and not seen during every camera angle. It may be costly to change out the courts for the first two rounds, but if the NCAA is trying to run two equitable tournaments then this is one visual change that would make the tournament feel bigger for the women. It may seem like an unnecessary detail but if you are doing it for the men, why not for the women?
Visually the courts are one of the bigger things a casual fan may notice, but there is more to it. The TV media rights are a major difference between the two tournaments. For starters, the men play on CBS and Turner’s family of channels which the NCAA also streams on their website and app. The women’s games are on ESPN’s family of networks and are not streamable from the NCAA’s website. For some people, their TV plan does not include ESPNU or ESPN News, so they have been unable to watch some of the women’s games. This lack of accessibility is something that pushes fans away from following and watching the tournament.
Beyond the actual channels, the men’s tournament brings in huge financial dollars from their media rights deal, while the women are not even given the opportunity to get a media rights deal. The men’s most recent media rights extension with CBS and Turner was $8.8 billion for eight additional years. The women’s tournament on the other hand is packaged into ESPN's larger deal that includes 29 NCAA championships with an annual payment of $34 million. Nobody is expecting the women’s tournament to reach the media rights numbers that the men have, but currently, they are not even allowed to pursue their own deal. The gender equity report estimated that the women’s tournament could get a deal between $81 and $112 million annually, so the lack of opportunity here is holding back the women’s tournament and leaving millions of dollars on the table.
Although the NCAA is not maximizing their financial interest in the women’s tournament, that is not stopping brands and sponsors from attempting to right the wrongs. Last year, the NCAA denied offers from businesses and pro athletes to provide gift cards for food and other amenities to the women because they were for competitors of their corporate sponsors. Again, the NCAA seemed to be holding back others who wanted to help address the equity issues, and in a way, they are still holding sponsors back this year. While CBS and Turner do not broadcast the women’s tournament, they own the rights to the NCAA corporate sponsorship program until 2032. There is an incentive here for them to push the sponsorship for the men’s tournament. When partners buy into a deal, they are required to purchase rights to the men’s tournament. There is not an option for a standalone deal for the women’s tournament, so sponsors interested in supporting the women’s tournament also have to get in on the men’s tournament. Companies simply cannot only sponsor the women’s tournament but they can only sponsor the men’s. This is something the NCAA could change by buying CBS out of that portion of their contract. Despite all of the barriers that are blocking potential sponsors from getting involved in the women’s tournament, there will be eleven sponsors that will activate at the Women’s Final Four which is up from the seven from last year. Additionally, Disney advertising announced that they sold out of their commercial inventory for the women’s tournament. Further showcasing that brands want to be involved and see the value in the women’s tournament.
So far, both tournaments have provided fantastic moments on the court. Although this is no surprise to those that watch both tournaments, a lot of skeptics have tried to make the argument that the women’s tournament is not as exciting and has fewer upsets. These two arguments are invalid, as we have seen with big-time programs being upset already and games going into multiple overtimes. The women’s tournament as a whole has seen a boost in interest. The selection show itself had 1.1 million viewers (a 160% increase from 2021) and was placed on Sunday night rather than Monday like in years past. To this point, the changes have been small and are certainly not enough, but it is a positive sign to see so many trying to help address the gender equity issues between the two NCAA tournaments. While there are still a lot of changes that need to be made, it does appear like change is coming, even if it is slow.