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After last year’s social media exposure, the NCAA women’s tournament should be more equitable this time

By Michael Smith
Degree Deodorant is sponsoring a women’s bracket challenge with the WNBA’s Candace Parker as spokesperson.courtesy of degree deoderant

Lynn Holzman has a clear destination in mind for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

“I want it to be the mega women’s basketball event in the world, a gathering place for stakeholders and a place to celebrate the game,” she said. “I want our championship to be where the world looks to see this high caliber of women’s basketball.”

Holzman, the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball, has had a year since the fiasco in San Antonio to lead the tournament in a new direction with a renewed emphasis on gender equity and the college athlete experience.

If there was a silver lining from last year’s tournament, in which Oregon player Sedona Prince and others took to social media to expose the inequities in the men’s and women’s championships, it’s that the NCAA had a clear set of priorities for what needed to be fixed.

It also provided Holzman and other leaders within women’s basketball the opportunity to discuss and determine what they want the game to be. Is the goal to be just like the men’s tournament or to maintain a separate identity? It’s a question that has been asked often over the 40 years the NCAA has been conducting women’s sport championships.

“Last year really shined a light on the historic and often systemic issues that we’ve experienced in women’s athletics,” Holzman said. “There has been a tremendous amount of time and investment, and we’re proud of what we’re going to be able to show this year. It’s also important to point out that we are not done. This isn’t a one-year thing.” 

Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball, has the distinction of working on both tournaments and has seen the committees from both championships working and meeting together at unprecedented levels. Those two committees rarely collaborated before.

Tournament time

Major developments in the 2022 NCAA women’s basketball tournament:

■ Final Four site: Target Center, Minneapolis
■ Defending champion: Stanford
■ Tournament expanded to 68 teams from 64.
■ ESPN selection show moved from Monday to Sunday night to accommodate the first year of the First Four.
■ Of the 17 NCAA corporate champions and partners, 11 are activating in Minneapolis, site of the Final Four. That’s up from seven in 2019 in Tampa.
■ AT&T is sponsoring the Super Saturday concert. Buick is sponsoring the Party on the Plaza. Capital One is sponsoring Tourney Town.
■ The two teams that make it to the finals will hold open practices for the first time as part of Super Saturday.
■ Use of March Madness branding on several promotional items is new this year.
■ Among the items that have been adjusted to be the same as the men are lounge areas, gifts and mementos, per diem and travel.

“Probably the safest place to be, if you’re 100% conservative, would be to have both championships exactly the same,” Gavitt said. “But there are some unique differences, and there is some desire to enhance those unique qualities.”

This recalibration of the women’s tournament has opened the door to a variety of compelling big picture ideas. The concept of putting the women’s Final Four in the same market on the same weekend as the men’s has been dismissed for now, but an alternative has emerged — put the women’s Final Four on a separate weekend. The women’s basketball committee will begin a deeper examination of these ideas after this year’s Final Four.

There also has been a concerted effort to make sure the women enjoy all of the same benefits as the men on lounge areas, gifts and mementos, per diem and travel.

“Last year really highlighted some of the differences that make the men’s experience fantastic,” said Lisa Campos, athletic director at Texas-San Antonio and chair of the women’s basketball oversight committee. “For me, the really important thing is that we are listening to the student athlete and providing them with a great experience. We heard their voice last year and now we need to capture this opportunity and make the most of it.”

The NCAA’s corporate champions and partners play a role in elevating the experience for the fans as well. Eleven of the NCAA’s 17 sponsors are planning activation in Minneapolis for the women’s Final Four, up from seven in 2019. Degree Deodorant stepped forward with a bracket challenge for the women’s championship and has hired WNBA player Candace Parker to promote it.

The NCAA also will launch a new element on Super Saturday featuring open practices for the two teams that advance to the championship game. It is similar to the event Reese’s sponsors at the men’s Final Four.

One area that will require more conversations about equity is digital media. The NCAA made strides by creating new handles for its social media feeds so that the men’s and women’s mirror each other.

But finding an equitable solution for the uber-popular March Madness Live is a much more complicated problem. MML is produced by Turner Sports, which owns the digital rights to the men’s tournament. ESPN, meanwhile, owns the rights to the women’s championship. Its digital coverage of the women’s tournament lives on the ESPN app.

There’s not a quick remedy for that and it’s an issue that will live on into 2023.

“The ESPN environment has been optimized, but we still think there is more we can do around storytelling and confidential series,” Gavitt said. “That’s something we can do in partnership with ESPN or independently with another partner. Things like that just take longer to implement.”

As of January, the NCAA had identified 65 “gap areas” where an item from the women’s tournament did not match up with the men’s championship, and 40 of them had been resolved.

The NCAA will get a better snapshot after the tournament when an independent firm will present its audit of the event.

The governing body is not citing specific numbers, but Gavitt said the budget for the women’s championship has increased in the millions of dollars. The goal, however, was not to simply spend more.

“The equity assessment has been about making sure the student athlete experience is equitable, not about finances,” Gavitt said. “The money has followed where the decision has been appropriate.”

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