For the NCAA, Building the Business of Women’s Sports Starts With Basketball
Why this matters
Sports fans were outraged at how last year's NCAA women's basketball tournament was given short shrift compared with the men's tourney. Here's how the NCAA can undo its worst instincts and grow women's basketball as a business.
Three days before the tipoff of the 2021 National Collegiate Athletic Association Women’s Basketball Tournament, University of Oregon star Sedona Prince posted a video on TikTok showing that the weight rooms provided to the men’s and women’s players in their respective coronavirus pandemic bubbles were drastically unequal. The revelation led to a flurry of reporting on many other examples of inequitable treatment and led NCAA President Mark Emmert to admit that “we dropped the ball in supporting our women athletes.”
A subsequent in-depth review of gender disparity in NCAA basketball – paid for by the association but conducted by an outside law firm – concluded that:
“The NCAA does not have structures or systems in place to identify, prevent, or address those inequities. The results have been cumulative, not only fostering skepticism and distrust about the sincerity of the NCAA’s commitment to gender equity, but also limiting the growth of women’s basketball and perpetuating a mistaken narrative that women’s basketball is destined to be a ‘money loser’ year after year.”
In other words, relative to the men’s game, the NCAA arguably is holding the business of women’s basketball back, actively preventing it from becoming a more popular and profitable product.
The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way. Women’s college basketball has tremendous potential. Here’s how the people in charge of college sports can maximize it:
1. Mind the Longevity Gap
There are many obvious gaps between what men’s and women’s sports are. Men’s sports typically enjoy more attention from the media, more money from public and private sources, higher wages for both coaches and athletes (even after controlling for revenue), and higher ratings and attendance.
Underlying these disparities, however, is a key factor that is often ignored: the history gap. Because of historic gender discrimination, organized men’s sports at every level – including college – have existed far longer than comparable women’s sports.
Consider basketball. Many fans of the sport know that it was invented at Springfield College in 1891 by James Naismith. Fewer people, however, know that Senda Berenson introduced the women of Smith College to basketball the very next year. Soon after, other groups worked to stop women from playing. Stanford University and the University of California banned intercollegiate women’s basketball. In 1908, the American Athletics Union said that girls and women should not play basketball in public. Six years later, the American Olympic Association opposed letting women play basketball at the Olympics.
This kind of blatant sexism has been commonplace across American sports – and society – for as long as there have been both American sports and society, and the sexism only really began dissipating in the latter half of the 20th century.
Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools or education programs receiving federal funding, kickstarted the modern era of women’s college sports after going into effect in 1972. Meanwhile, the NCAA was founded in 1906. Which means men’s sports have benefited from decades’ more time to build their brands, fanbases, and businesses. As the rough equivalent of a basketball team that starts a game with a 50-point advantage, men’s sports should be more popular and lucrative than women’s sports!
Yet when it comes to women’s college basketball, the NCAA doesn’t seem to realize this. As Arizona State University professor Victoria Jackson has written, the association has never really focused on achieving gender equity in sports. Instead, it has focused on growing the two so-called “revenue sports” of football and men’s basketball.
Related: Women’s Basketball Is on the Front Line of a Changing Sports Media
In fairness to the NCAA, it’s true that those sports generate quite a bit of revenue. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the 252 teams that play NCAA Division I football reported $5.3 billion in revenue in 2019. Similarly, Division I men’s basketball teams reported $1.8 billion in revenue that year.
But that doesn’t mean there is no money in any other sport. To the contrary, women’s Division I basketball reported more than $600 million in revenue. That’s a lot less than men’s basketball in 2019 – but given that men’s basketball has a huge historical head start, 2019 isn’t a fair, apples-to-apples comparison.
Instead, it makes more sense to go back in time. The Department of Education also reports revenue data for college sports back to 2004. At that time, Division I men’s basketball generated about $980 million in revenue, adjusted to 2019 dollars – more than women do today, but a much smaller difference. Extrapolate the Education Department’s data back even further, and it’s likely that men’s basketball generated around $600 million in the mid-1990s.
Here’s a question: Did anyone look at men’s college basketball at that time and think it was – in the words of the NCAA’s gender equity review – a “money loser”? For that matter, did the NCAA or its member schools watch Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and the Fab Five and decide there’s no point investing in this sport because it will never grow from here?
Again, there is nothing wrong with NCAA leadership trying to milk football and men’s basketball for all those sports are worth. The problem is not seeing that women’s basketball is worth milking, too, even if it doesn’t make as much money as its male counterpart yet. Understanding history would help the NCAA understand that women’s basketball is doing quite well, that it has plenty of room to grow in the future, and that the revenue gap between it and men’s basketball is less a matter of inherent gender differences than a matter of lost time.
2. Know Your Actual Worth
The insight mentioned above also would help the NCAA stop selling women’s basketball short in the here and now. How so? Let’s take a look at the broadcast rights for the women’s tournament. According to the association’s gender equity review, conducted by Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP (KHF), the NCAA didn’t sell those rights to ESPN as a stand-alone package. Instead, it sold them alongside the rights to broadcast 28 other NCAA championships for $34 million a year.
Time for some simple math. The NCAA’s current deal with CBS and WarnerMedia for the men’s basketball tournament, which runs until 2032, pays more than $1 billion a year. Meanwhile, the women’s tournament and 28 other championships were sold for less than 5 percent of that amount – which means the women’s tournament alone was sold for much less than 5 percent of what the men’s tournament fetched.
This is professional malpractice. According to the KFH report, the women’s basketball tournament alone will be worth $81 million to $112 million a year in 2025. Emmert and company didn’t just drop the ball. They lost something in the neighborhood of $50 million to $80 million annually.
And that’s not all. The review also noted that the NCAA’s deal with CBS and WarnerMedia gives those broadcasters control of all sponsorship rights to all NCAA championships – even though those same broadcasters have only the right to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament. As such, CBS/Turner has a rather large incentive to prioritize college men’s basketball when pursuing sponsorship opportunities.
Unsurprisingly, the broadcast of the men’s tournament looks much better than the corresponding broadcast of the women’s tournament. As the review states:
Because CBS/Turner has the incentive to build up men’s basketball at the expense of all other sports, the men’s tournament has a different look and feel – drawing leading artists who perform at a concert during the Final Four, television advertisements that feature famous athletes and public figures, and programming that airs during the broadcast of the tournament covering players, their stories, and their families. ... These features make the men’s tournament feel like a professional sporting event, while the women’s championship lags far behind.
By negotiating a below-market deal that also treats women’s basketball as a sponsorship throw-in for men’s basketball, the NCAA has deprived the sport of millions in additional revenue while creating an inferior on-air product. This needs to change.
3. Appreciate the Market
Historically, many men have tended to think of sports as just for them: Only men seriously play, and only men are serious fans. Even today, when women play, show interest in watching, or generate interest from male fans, a good number of men often seem quite surprised.
They shouldn’t be. A 2015 Gallup poll indicated that 51 percent of women identify as sports fans. Extrapolate from that number, and it means that about 44 percent of all sports fans are women. When it comes to playing sports, we see a similar story. According to a comprehensive annual national High School Athletics Participation Survey, there were 7.9 million students participating in high school sports in 2018-19. About 43 percent were girls. Likewise, about 43 percent of all NCAA athletes are women.
Despite everything that men have done to exclude women, women make up a large and growing part of the sports marketplace. And that’s especially true for college sports. If you were a national governing body or conference or individual athletic department looking to market to who attends universities and who is graduating, then you would be wise to market more and more to women. Why? Women currently account for 59 percent of all college students, and they have been the majority for decades.
Of course, this is not to say that women’s college sports should be marketed only to women. Caiti Donovan, the vice president of data and insights at the Sports Innovation Lab, says that half of women’s professional sports fans are men. The NCAA needs to realize this – all of this – and act accordingly to take advantage of an underserved market.
4. Invest Toward Growth, Not Charity
Imagine, for a minute, that college sports are stocks. Football and men’s basketball are essentially Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Both are very popular. Both make lots of money. Both have been around for decades. But their potential for growth is limited. Their markets are mature and saturated; they are well-known and well-sampled; very few people who aren’t already fans of them are going to become cola drinkers in the future.
By contrast, women’s basketball (like most women’s sports) is arguably a growth stock. It’s a younger, less established product. It hasn’t been consistently promoted or marketed. It likely has many more future fans to convert. A concerted effort to invest in women’s basketball over time – not as an afterthought or a begrudging corporate charity project, but as part of an aggressive growth strategy – could yield impressive returns for the NCAA and its schools.
Consider the early spending on college athlete name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals. The majority of it has gone toward men. However, that’s due to the popularity of football. According to Jim Cavale, the CEO of INFLCR, an online marketing platform for athletes, “if you remove football from the equation, transactions or activities disclosed by female student-athletes make up more than 50 percent of the total for all other sports.”
Based on data from INFLCR and Opendorse, another online NIL platform, five women’s sports rank in the top 10 for NIL activities: track and field, volleyball, basketball, soccer, and softball. Opendorse also reports that six women's sports are also in the top 10 for NIL compensation, led by women’s basketball – which at 26.2 percent trails football (45.7 percent) but is actually ahead of men’s basketball (18 percent).
Related: How Female NCAA Athletes Will Profit in the New Era of NIL Rights
Similarly, television viewership is generally declining due to cord-cutting, audience fragmentation, and other factors. However, as just one example (among many) of audience growth, women’s basketball on the Big Ten Network just enjoyed its most-watched season ever, with ratings that were 41 percent higher than its previous best in 2019-20.
The existence of these numbers is yet another indicator of how much interest already exists for women’s college basketball and how cultivating that interest is a path to future prosperity.
5. Find the Right Leaders
It might be time for the NCAA to think much harder about who leads college sports.
Only one woman, Judith Sweet, has ever served as NCAA president – and her groundbreaking tenure, from 1991 to 1993, isn’t even mentioned in the association’s online summary of its own history. If we look at athletic directors, only 15 percent of those in Division I are women; at the 65 schools that make up the Power Five conferences, only five women are leading athletic departments.
Research shows a strong correlation between the gender of an athletic director and the gender of the coaches that AD hires. Men tend to hire men. As such, it’s fair to wonder if a lack of women at the top levels of college sports leadership has a similar effect on the NCAA’s paltry level of investment into and promotion of women’s college basketball.
Having more women and fewer men calling the shots doesn’t guarantee that the association wouldn’t still stick women’s players with a laughably subpar tournament bubble weight room or refuse to let the women’s tournament use the trademarked term “March Madness” – which is something the NCAA actually did! But, certainly, having more women leaders would make those sorts of decisions less likely.
And there’s another issue to consider when it comes to NCAA leadership: Representation matters a great deal in life. It is very much true that if a child can’t see it, they often can’t dream of being it. Having more women at the top in sports means that more and more girls will see sports as something that is for them, on and off the field. The more we make it the cultural norm that sports are for women in every way and at every level, the bigger the future market will be for women’s sports.
To the NCAA’s credit, changes have been made for this year’s women’s basketball tournament. The field has been expanded to 68 teams, just like the men’s side. The women’s Final Four will now feature a variety of additional events that long have been staples of the men’s tournament, including a three-day festival, open practices, and a publicly available concert. ESPN will broadcast every game on its platforms, and the network has made a substantial investment in upgrading the quality of those broadcasts.
Oh, and the women are finally going to be allowed to use “March Madness” to promote themselves. Hallelujah!
Early returns on these changes are encouraging. Weeks before the start of the women’s tournament, ESPN already had sold all of its advertising inventory, leading network executive Sean Hanrahan to state that “the spotlight is on women’s sports as hidden gems. Brands are starting to realize that it’s a highly engaged audience with good ratings, so why shouldn’t they be there?”
This quote speaks volumes. The phrases “hidden gem” and “brands are starting to realize” illustrate how much potential women’s college basketball and other sports have – and how much more the NCAA needs to do in order to fully realize it.
College Sports 2.0
Last summer, NCAA president Mark Emmert openly acknowledged it was “the right time” to answer the question “if we were going to build college sports again, and in 2020 instead of 1920, what would that look like?”
From education to athlete safety, labor laws to race and gender equity and beyond, this issue offers guidance for what that next iteration of American college sport ought to look like.