The NCAA Can Use March Madness To Create Gender Equality In Sports

March Madness is upon us and while the college basketball tournament for men receives extensive media coverage and is a highly promoted multi-billion-dollar enterprise, the women’s tournament is often overlooked or at best receives a smattering of promotion, media attention, and TV distribution. It is well documented that the women’s component of the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament has been treated as a second class citizen in every sense of the term.

The facilities for the women’s teams participating pale in comparison to the men’s including: training, travel, gym, workout and accommodations. In 2021 a video went viral on social media showing the marked contrast between the facilities afforded the men’s basketball teams during March Madness. However, there is movement afoot to narrow this great divide.

Broadcast Agreements Are The Key To Future Equality

The vast differences in the NCAA’s contracts with media outlets for men and women are responsible for creating an uneven playing field. Until that is remedied, little can be done in the short term except provide additional support or a grant to women’s sports. This is almost like a charitable contribution because it is not economically justified as a result of the vast difference in revenue generated by men’s and women’s basketball. In short, the harsh reality as a result of the NCAA’s media contracts is that women’s basketball has far less TV distribution and promotion, a fraction of media coverage, a sliver of sponsor support and activation as do men’s basketball. This all adds up to less exposure and revenue generated by the women’s side of the sport.

The only thing that can solve this problem is a new media deal that narrows the gap and that gap includes distribution, promotion, coverage and dollars for media rights. The NCAA’s deal with CBS and Turner for the men’s tournament will bring the per-year average to $1.1 billion in 2025. That deal comes with massive commitments to promote the NCAA and March Madness which in turn lays the foundation for lucrative sponsorship deals complete with powerful activation in advertising, promotion and live events.

The result is that Men’s March Madness is incredibly aspirational with high perceived value. Moreover, Corporate sponsorship dollars and the associated benefits, including fan fests and other items that contribute to the tournament’s “look and feel,” are disproportionately spent on men’s championships over women’s championships within the same sport. The combination of all this sends a powerful message that our culture highly values men’s version of the property.

The NCAA overall broadcast deal for women’s sports affords women roughly $6.1 million for the March Madness tournament which is a fraction of the nearly $1 billion generated on the men’s side of the tournament. It has recently been reported that the women’s media deal is significantly undervalued as it is sold and packaged as a unit along with every Division I women’s championship event, unlike the men’s tournament, which is sold as its own entity. It was also reported that the annual broadcast rights for Division I women’s basketball will be worth between $81 million and $112 million in 2025 — which is “multiples more” than ESPN currently pays annually to broadcast those 29 championships, including Division I women’s basketball.

The good news is that there is strong tail winds behind women’s sports like never before and particularly for women’s basketball. The 2022 women’s March Madness tournament had record-setting attendance of 47,923 fans during its first year in Minneapolis at the Target Center. The tournament merchandise sales set new highs, increasing at a 11.6% clip over last year and 241% higher than the 10-year average.

In order to super charge the movement for gender equality in sports and equal pay, my suggestion is that the NCAA ask CBS, Turner and ESPN to come to the table with a joint proposal to broadcast March Madness for both men and women, narrowing the gender divide so that distribution, promotion and division of money becomes more equal. It would be the most powerful statement yet in shifting cultural perception of the value of women’s sports. It would also dramatically shift more dollars to the women’s basketball side of the equation which is foundational to providing equal benefits and compensation for women and their sports.