Remember this time last year, when there was near-universal outrage directed at the NCAA for its condescending and sexist view of the women’s basketball tournament and the athletes playing in it?
The weight room that wasn’t? The dismal food? The tournament swag that couldn’t have been worse had it been re-gifts?
Keep that energy up. Because while the NCAA will trumpet the steps it has taken toward equity, they are little more than cosmetic measures that could have been done – but weren’t – the minute last year’s tournament ended.
The women’s tournament is now being called “March Madness,” just as the men’s event is. The “March Madness” bracket logo will be plastered all over the women’s tournament, just as it is in the men’s tournament. The size of the women’s field was increased to 68 teams and there will be a First Four, same as the men’s tournament has.
The men’s and women’s players will get the same souvenirs. Each Final Four team will have its own lounge, just as the men have had.
“The work is not done,” Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball, said. “There is more to do, and we look forward to doing more after this year’s championship.”
And that’s where the continuing outrage comes in.
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It is both unacceptable and utterly mind-boggling that, almost 50 years after Title IX became law, the NCAA could have been so dismissive of its women athletes. Oh, NCAA president Mark Emmert offered all kinds of excuses last year – COVID, there wasn’t enough room for a weight room and/or one was going to be set up later, more COVID – but every single one of them was worse than the next.
The bottom line was that Emmert and the NCAA had simply never cared enough to do a comparison to see if the women were being short-changed. They put all their efforts and energies into the cash cow that is the men’s tournament and figured whatever they did for the women would be good enough.
You could almost hear Emmert and the rest of the suits in Indianapolis muttering under their breath, “What are those girls griping about? They should be grateful they even have a tournament.”
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But this is what Emmert and Co., not to mention the executives at the various media companies, have missed. While it should be enough to treat women equally simply because it’s the right thing to do, failing to do so is costing the NCAA, TV networks and sponsors.
A lot. A LOT a lot.
While CBS pays the NCAA billions for the broadcast rights to the men’s tournament, the NCAA threw the rights to the women’s tournament into a package of two dozen championships. Because who would imagine that anyone would watch the marquee event in women’s college athletics, let alone pay for the rights to air it, right?
But as anyone who has been paying attention to ratings – or attendance or sponsorships or jersey sales – could tell you, women’s sports is where the money is right now. Ratings for last year’s tournament skyrocketed, with the Baylor-UConn game in the Elite Eight drawing 1.7 million viewers alone.
This despite going head-to-head against the men’s tournament.
In early February, average viewership for women’s college basketball was up 46 percent over 2021. The women’s Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis set a record for attendance, and its TV ratings were up 76 percent.
No, that’s not a misprint. 76 percent.
But hey! The girls got a new logo and better swag so we’re all good, right?
The misogynistic keyboard warriors will no doubt howl at even the suggestion that the women deserve equal treatment, claiming the NCAA is only prioritizing what makes money. Ignoring the fact that the women’s tournament might be bringing in billions, too, had the NCAA marketed it and promoted it like it has the men’s tournament rather than treating it, at best, like an afterthought.
Anyone who watched last year’s tournament, or has tuned in this season, knows that the women’s game is every bit as exciting, competitive and compelling as the men’s game. There are tremendous individual players, entertaining rivalries and intriguing storylines, just as there are in the men’s bracket.
Treating the women as equal players, in March and beyond, is long overdue. The changes the NCAA has made are a good start, but that’s all they are.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour @nrarmour