As Women’s Basketball Grows, Equity Is Trying to Catch Up
In Seattle, there was enough black and gold in the arena to turn it into Iowa-by-the-sea. (And enough Sue Bird jerseys to serve as a reminder of who has been the building’s regular resident.) In Greenville, S.C., the vocal crowds were overwhelmingly clad in red — as if unbeaten South Carolina, the reigning champion, needed any advantages beyond forward Aliyah Boston, its relentless rebounding and a stifling defense.
The N.C.A.A.’s experiment of winnowing the usual four regional sites for the Division I women’s basketball tournament down to two this year — and packing eight teams into two cities — may have created a travel burden for some teams, but the four-day basketball fiestas on opposite ends of the country seem to be an idea worth holding on to.
Attendance for the regional semifinals and finals topped 85,000, more than 35 percent higher than last year’s combined attendance in Bridgeport, Conn.; Wichita, Kan.; Spokane, Wash.; and Greensboro, N.C.
“Kudos to the creativity, to see what we can draw,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said begrudgingly, not caring for playing a veritable road game for a spot in the Final Four any more than she liked the whistles that sent her players parading to the bench with foul trouble in Monday’s loss to South Carolina.
It has been two years since the inequities between men’s and women’s college basketball, which had been hiding in plain sight for decades, were laid bare by a video of the paltry weight lifting equipment at the women’s tournament and sparked national outrage.
The N.C.A.A. commissioned a report by the civil rights lawyer Roberta Kaplan that highlighted systemic inequities and suggested remedies to help the women’s game thrive amid its increasing popularity. But the path of women’s basketball growth, whether it’s a race to catch up to the men’s game or evolving into something that’s distinct alongside it, is not exactly clear.
“There’s some pressure to build it the same as the men,” said Tara VanDerveer, the long-tenured Stanford coach. “But when you have a chance to build something, you should build it the way you want to build it.”
A number of quick fixes were made last year. They were mostly easy and obvious: expanding the women’s tournament from 64 teams to 68, matching the men’s field, and using March Madness branding for both events, which the N.C.A.A. had previously resisted. The N.C.A.A. also beefed up staffing for the women’s tournament, paid referees the same as in the men’s tournament and made sure players in both tournaments received the same swag bags filled with T-shirts, caps, towels and other branded merchandise.
The spending gap between the tournaments, which had been $35 million, according to the report, was narrowed by millions last year.
A notable change this year in both tournaments has been on television when the ball stops bouncing. One commercial after another features prominent faces in the men’s and women’s games. There’s South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley pitching supplemental health insurance alongside the recently retired Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski; the former Gonzaga star Chet Holmgren hawking cellphone coverage with the former South Carolina standout and current W.N.B.A. star A’ja Wilson; or Stephen Curry, the Golden State star, peddling sports apparel with Boston and Staley.
That sort of synergistic branding is something Kaplan’s report urged the N.C.A.A. to seek with its advertising and broadcast partners.
Charlie Baker, the new N.C.A.A. president, will have a decision to make in the coming months about the direction of the women’s tournament as its media rights come up for bid.
The current contract with ESPN, which expires next year, includes the broadcast rights to the women’s basketball tournament along with more than two dozen other N.C.A.A. championship events, including the baseball and softball World Series, the volleyball tournaments and the men’s basketball National Invitation Tournament. The network paid the N.C.A.A. $41.8 million in 2021, according to the Kaplan report.
The negotiations come at a time when interest in the women’s game is surging, with increased attendance and television ratings. In addition to the record crowds last weekend, this year’s tournament also set a record for attendance in the first and second rounds, which are played on the home courts of the 16 top-seeded teams.