Gender equity in college basketball: What has changed and what to watch for

Last year at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, Oregon forward Sedona Prince set the internet on fire with a TikTok she shared to her social media accounts. With both the men’s and women’s tournaments held in single-location “bubbles” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Prince quickly highlighted how the men’s teams were treated better, whether that was through weight rooms, meals, player gifts and more.

While the NCAA quickly tried to save face by bringing in a new weight room for the women, the damage had already been done. Deep structural differences were exposed, and with public pressure rising, the NCAA authorized an external report on gender equity in college athletics.

A year removed from the 2021 tournaments — and with the 2022 tournaments come and gone — athletes and fans can see what, if anything, has changed. They can also continue to look forward and see if the days of more sustainable gender equity are on the horizon.

The report

The law firm of Kaplan Hecker & Fink (KHF) provided findings which detailed recommendations for the NCAA to use in the 2022 tournaments and the future to ensure a permanent gender equity structure. The NCAA’s gender equity page lists the recommendations implemented in 2022, along with others they have made plans to implement going forward.

Notably, several of the report’s recommendations centered on accountability and permanent change were missing from the NCAA’s plans, including performing an annual gender equity audit and conducting another external assessment in five years.

“Yes, the NCAA is planning to undergo regular audits related to gender equity efforts,” NCAA associate director of communications Meghan Durham told the Daily Universe. “I don’t have an update for you on specific timing at this point.”

Changes at the 2022 women’s tournament

BYU women’s basketball player Tegan Graham drives against LMU. (BYU Women’s Basketball)

BYU women’s basketball guard Tegan Graham was present at both the 2021 and 2022 tournaments, affording her a front row seat to compare the two. She appreciates the progress that was made, such as expanding the women’s bracket to 68 teams and using March Madness branding in the women’s tournament for the first time.

“Something as simple as using the March Madness branding for the women’s event, just like the men’s, is incredibly powerful,” Women’s Basketball Coaches Association executive director Danielle Donehew said. “It sends a message to our student athletes, to our coaches, to our individuals on all the campuses, as well as all the fans and the people within our country, our ecosystem, that it’s a unified effort to promote and support these two incredible events.”

However, Graham was unsatisfied and frustrated with other changes the NCAA made that seemed to be sent with a message.

“(The gear bags were) kind of disappointing, because — and I think this is very purposeful — they made the men’s and women’s gear bag identical, but the quality of them were just not good,” Graham said. “A woman’s swag bag last year was better than the one they had this year. I think the NCAA did that on purpose to kind of push that whole narrative of, ‘well, if you want to give women more, then we’ve got to give men less,’ and that’s just not the case.”

Graham recently completed her master’s degree, where she explored gender equity in college athletics for her thesis to debunk the notion that if women are given more, men have to be given less.

What to watch for: media coverage

As sports director for media outlet KREM2, Brenna Greene covers men’s and women’s college basketball. She also brought attention to disparities in 2021 when she showed how the NCAA was providing pictures from the men’s games — but not the women’s games — until the Sweet Sixteen. Greene said last year was the first time the NCAA provided that resource because many outlets did not send photographers to games due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the NCAA made it appear like they would be providing pictures for both tournaments this year, Greene could not find any pictures throughout the tournaments. She explained that due to NCAA rules, media outlets cannot repost content from broadcasts or team photographers, so not having pictures made available limited coverage. While KREM2 had a photographer at all games this year, they were unable to add visual elements to their recaps of their local team’s women’s games last year.

While problems in media coverage have persisted, Greene says it’s not for lack for trying. She and her colleagues do everything they can to cover both genders fairly. Trends from the past year are encouraging however, as the recent women’s championship game between South Carolina and UConn was the most watched women’s championship game since 2004. “I think it’s just an example of if you invest in something, you can see returns in it,” Greene said.

Statistic from ESPN Press Room. (Images: NCAA. Made in Photoshop by Mike Miller.)

What to watch for: media rights deal

One of the topics Graham addressed in her thesis was NCAA payouts to tournament teams. The men’s tournament is structured so that schools receive money for themselves and their athletic conferences based on the number of games they play in. The women’s tournament has no such payout. This means there is less incentive for athletic departments to invest in women’s athletics because the money is not as easily paid back.

The next media rights deal the NCAA signs for the women’s tournament (the current agreement expires in 2024) has the potential to fix the issue. Donehew explained that if the NCAA receives a higher contract for the women’s tournament, their increased profit can be used to to set up a structure for a revenue stream.

Many believe the current deal undervalues women’s basketball. Lindsay Wyson is a Built4Life intern at BYU, where she helps the athletic department with name, image and likeness (NIL) deals. She pointed out a report from Boardroom which shows that four of the five athletes with the highest NIL earning potential on social media between both the men’s and women’s Final Fours were female.

“It just proves that there is value in women’s sports,” Wyson said. “Those numbers makes you think, why are these female athletes worth so much on social media?” She believes the numbers show that women’s basketball is worth much more than the current TV deal.

Donehew and the WBCA are also closely watching the upcoming media rights deal.

“The WBCA strongly recommends that we pay great attention and we help in any way possible to negotiate this important media agreement. It’s going to be really important that as this agreement is renegotiated that the women’s tournament is valued at market value moving forward,” she said.

However, Donehew explained a new deal is empty without an ensuing revenue system.

“We would expect that when that agreement is handled really well, there would be more money coming into the NCAA through that agreement,” she continued. “When that happens, it would be the appropriate time to start a unit distribution for women’s basketball success in the tournament.”

While a potential solution has been identified to hopefully fix much of the revenue disparities in college basketball, Greene explains the upcoming media negotiations are not as simple as the NCAA having a higher asking price. While she has no affiliation with the NCAA, ESPN or the last round of negotiations, she understands the basic principles behind media deals.

“They really just need a strong competitor for ESPN because, you see the NFL and the deals that they’re doing. The reason why they’re getting these huge deals is because everybody wants those rights, so they drive each other up. That’s where they get all this money,” Greene said.

What to watch for: permanent change

While the NCAA did not respond to The Daily Universe’s request to verify this information, a source at the NCAA Tournaments said meetings were planned to assess gender equity in real time. These meetings would be an important first step toward accountability and long-term gender equity.

Moving forward, athletes, coaches and fans say they are watching closely to see if recent changes are a sign of sustainable improvements or if the NCAA is just trying to appease the crowd to save face before slipping back into old habits. Ultimately, everyone involved believes the NCAA can only be held accountable if they remain under scrutiny.

“I want to say I’m hopeful because I feel like this conversation about gender equity has been quite a hot topic for about over a year now,” Graham said about her hopes for permanent change. “The last decade has slowly (had more coverage of women’s athletics), but I think in the last probably one to two, maybe even three years, there’s been a much bigger push. And then after the 2021 tournaments there’s this massive surge of people because of the public outcry. So I want to say I’m optimistic because of the public pressure.”

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