The National Collegiate Athletic Association is no exception. The organization did not sponsor a championship for women’s basketball, or any other women’s sport, until 1982—over 75 years after its creation.
Former Indiana University volleyball player Cindy DeWitt—who now owns Volleykats, a technical training business in volleyball—said she has had fun seeing how much women’s situations have come, but there’s still more to do.
“We didn’t have anything in the 1970s. There was nothing. We had play days, but we didn’t get to compete,” DeWitt said. “Now females have opportunity, but in this era, it is not equal to the men.”
Destinee Cross, a senior women’s basketball player at Franklin College, said it’s “bogus” how the NCAA treats its female athletes.
“You would expect a little bit [of inequality], but you would never expect it from the sports world because everyone just loves to play,” Cross said. “And you would think everyone’s getting paid the same and all this stuff, but it’s not like that at all.”
Franklin College senior Bay Walker, a former women’s basketball player, said she is not surprised by the inequity in the NCAA.
“It’s always been that way, with women versus men,” Walker said. “Everybody thinks that men’s sports are more entertaining and, you know, women aren’t good athletes and don’t deserve to have all the hype that men get for some reason.”
When people think about gender equity in college sports, many probably think of the Title IX. This federal civil rights law prohibits sex-based discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal funding, but athletes like Cross and Walker are still seeing it happen.
While all colleges and universities have to abide by Title IX rules, the NCAA, as the governing body for college athletics, does not. It actually has a history of opposing Title IX’s application to itself and also opposed colleges having to comply with Title IX until forced in 1984.
Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent group whose purpose is to prioritize college athletes’ education, health, safety and success, said the NCAA is not the entity to address Title IX violations in its institutions, but it can be a model for colleges if it addresses its own inequity.
“[The Knight Commission’s] point is that the NCAA is the governing body for college sports and can certainly be setting the example and operating its championships as well as distributing revenue in gender-equitable ways and in ways that promote gender equity,” she said.
There are, in fact, more women’s sports in NCAA Division I than there are men’s sports. Women have a total of 17, with 10 team sports and seven individuals. On the other hand, men have 15 sports—eight teams and seven individuals.
But while there are more women’s sports, the NCAA pays more for men’s tournaments, basketball in particular. The NCAA did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Madness in March
The men’s and women’s basketball championships happen simultaneously in March every year. The 2020 tournaments were canceled because of COVID-19, but they returned in 2021.
However, while the men’s and women’s tournaments took place at the same time, they were not treated the same. Several players and coaches from women’s basketball teams took to social media to call out the NCAA on the inequivalent resources and amenities.
University of Oregon center Sedona Prince, sophomore at the time, was one of the first to share video of the “weight room” provided for the women’s tournament, which consisted of only a few yoga mats, a single dumbbell pyramid and a lot of unused space. The men’s teams had a full-functioning gym with dozens of different pieces of equipment and plenty of dumbbells.
There were also inequalities with the food provided, the “swag bags” given to all the players and the COVID-19 tests. The female players received lower quality in all of these areas and used social media to make it known.
Dr. Donna Lopiano, president and founder of the Sports Management Resources consulting firm and former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said it was not surprising. She said not everyone knew there was unequal treatment until they saw it on video.
“It doesn’t become real until someone sees it,” Lopiano said. “When [Prince] shared those videos of the discrepancies between the weight rooms and the food provided to male and female athletes, she made it real for people.”
In response to the outrage, the NCAA hired the Kaplan Hecker & Fink law firm to investigate disparities between men’s and women’s athletics.
The first phase of the external review focused solely on the Division I men’s and women’s basketball championships. The 114-page report for this phase came out in August.
Kaplan’s report detailed the disparity between men’s and women’s basketball in several areas, including revenue distribution, broadcasting and branding rights, opportunities outside the championships, and many more.
Cross said she was shocked by what happened at the tournaments because the lack of resources was something she would have expected more for Division III athletes who “don’t really get the luxury.”
“I wasn’t expecting it for [Division I] athletes because, you know, they have all the best stuff and everything,” Cross said. “And then, it was just like, oh, I’m not surprised because that’s how they are in all sports. It doesn’t matter what level you are, it’s just they don’t really care for women’s sports at all.”
Broadcasting and branding
One of the biggest disparities Kaplan found was the amount of money spent on broadcasting and sponsorship for the tournaments.
The NCAA has several contracts with CBS Broadcasting and Turner Broadcasting System, which require them to broadcast the entirety of the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.
The CBS/Turner pays the NCAA nearly $1.1 billion annually to broadcast the single tournament and handle sponsorship for all of the championships. Meanwhile, ESPN pays approximately 4.5% of that, about $34 million, to broadcast 29 other championships every year, including Division I women’s basketball.
Walker said it’s most likely a lot of men making the decisions to put so much more money into the men’s basketball tournament. She said the women’s teams get no visibility from the NCAA.
“They’re just perpetuating misogyny and making it way harder to watch the women’s games,” Walker said. “I mean, I could tell you every team that played in the March Madness games, but I have no idea what women’s teams played this year.”
According to the Kaplan report, Ed Desser, an expert in media consultancy, said in an independent analysis that the Division I women’s basketball tournament alone is worth much more—between $81 and $112 million annually by 2025.
The Kaplan report also stated that since CBS/Turner owns all sponsorship rights for all 90 NCAA championships, it’s more incentivized to create and encourage sponsorship to Division I men’s basketball above all other sports.
In order to participate as a sponsor in the Corporate Champion and Partner Program, CBS/Turner requires companies to purchase the sponsorship rights to all 90 championships and the media rights to the men’s basketball tournament.
This makes the cost of supporting the women’s basketball championship preposterously expensive for many companies, thus stopping sponsors who may want to support women’s basketball but can’t afford the high-priced sponsorship of men’s basketball.
It’s also more difficult to sponsor women’s basketball, or any of the other championships, because even after buying the expensive CBS/Turner Corporate Champion and Partner Program, companies still have to separately negotiate with and pay ESPN for air time during the tournaments.
The CBS/Turner rights fee, which was $850 million in 2021, is counted by the NCAA as only revenue from Division I men’s basketball, even though the agreement includes selling CBS/Turner the management of the Corporate Champion and Partner Program, which also brings in revenue for that total rights fee.
In 2021, ESPN played all 63 games of the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship on national television for the first time ever.
Cross said broadcasting and promoting prominent female players as public figures would bring more support to the game.
“Seeing those people being on the camera more, so they can actually get the word out about women as far as what’s happening,” she said, “and by pushing more of that into the culture, I feel like it will definitely bring more awareness and more fans to the arenas and stadiums.”
Coaches, players and fans alike have also called out the NCAA for under-promoting the women’s tournament. The term everyone knows, “March Madness,” was used exclusively to promote the men’s championships.
The “March Madness” brand is always plastered everywhere for the men’s tournament, from the center of the court to the chairs to the players’ uniforms. Meanwhile, the women’s would only say “NCAA Women’s Basketball.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in March 2021 that, according to the NCAA, the former “women’s basketball leadership … chose to pursue their own brand identity.”
The NCAA admitted its statement was false the next day, after the WSJ reached out to the former executive the NCAA had been referring to.
Lopiano and Cross both agree that the NCAA, by putting so much more money into broadcasting and promoting the men’s basketball tournament than the women’s, plays into the idea that men’s sports are better and more worth watching.
“If you go to a women’s game, a women’s game is actually very exciting. Our games were very exciting. And, you know, it just makes it even more enjoyable to be there to watch what happens,” Cross said. “There’s been a lot of people at women’s basketball tournaments, and I think they’re trying to promote it better, but they still have some work to do.”
Only for men
Perko said a key area the Knight Commission has recommended the NCAA change is the distribution of its more than $600 million yearly revenue because it influences institutions’ priorities.
“Right now those priorities are influenced by the fact that the NCAA gives financial rewards just for the success of men’s basketball teams,” Perko said.
These financial rewards are known as the Men’s Basketball Performance Fund, which, in 2021, distributed $168.5 million to conferences that had teams participate in March Madness. Every year, the NCAA gives revenue to conferences based on how well teams in that conference did in the championships.
There is no such fund for the women’s basketball championship.
Kaplan reported that men’s basketball committees have more senior leaders within NCAA membership than the women’s basketball committees, which “negatively impacts the women’s committees’ ability to effectuate change.”
There is also more full-time staff and contractor support for the men’s championships.
As far as opportunities outside of the championships, the NCAA offers several for men’s basketball but not the same for women’s, according to Kaplan’s review.
The NCAA owns and operates the men’s National Invitational Tournament. It also hosts postseason tournaments for top Division I men’s teams not selected for March Madness. And it operates the College Basketball Academy for high-school boys.
There are no equivalent opportunities for female basketball players and teams.
Where to go from here
After the NCAA faced so much backlash during the women’s basketball tournament in 2021, it promised to do better by the women for 2022. And in some ways, it did provide more equity for the female athletes.
For the first time ever, the women’s championship was allowed to use the exclusive “March Madness” branding. And the number of teams in the tournament went from 64 to 68, the same number of teams as the men have always had.
But there is still a long way to go before there is true equity between the men’s and women’s tournaments.
The Kaplan report gave several recommendations. They include developing equity in staffing for both championships, marketing the rights to broadcast and sponsor the women’s tournament by itself, and holding both Final Fours in the same city.
In March, the Knight Committee proposed a way for the NCAA to improve its revenue distribution, suggesting that the NCAA require equal rewards for the success of women’s teams.
While the NCAA does not legally have to provide gender equity by Title IX, a few U.S. representatives introduced legislation in March that would hold the NCAA more accountable for its treatment of women athletes.
The bill would create a congressional commission to conduct a comprehensive study of gender equity of the NCAA’s championships and policies.
“The misogyny is systemic,” Walker said. “It’s in every aspect of athletics.”