How the Final Four in Minneapolis is a sign of what’s to come in women’s college basketball

1 April 2022

One video, posted to TikTok and Twitter last March, started it all.

Oregon forward Sedona Prince’s 38-second comparison of the paltry women’s weight training equipment at the NCAA Tournament bubble in San Antonio compared the men’s in Indianapolis went viral, and the blowback prompted unprecedented scrutiny into how the NCAA manages and markets its men’s and women’s basketball championships.

The NCAA commissioned the law firm of Kaplan Hecker & Fink to review its equity practices. The findings proved unsurprising to many and astonishing to others. The 114-page Kaplan Report savaged the NCAA for a structure that prioritized the men’s tournament while undervaluing the women’s, and offered a list of ways to rectify the inequities.

This weekend’s NCAA Women’s Final Four at the Target Center will be the first since the Kaplan Report came out. Already, we’re seeing some of the report’s suggestions implemented. For the first time, fans and TV viewers found the familiar March Madness branding at both tournaments instead of just the men’s. And the women’s tournament expanded from 64 to 68 teams, matching the men’s field. 

More changes could be coming, including renegotiating the women’s tournament rights fee with ESPN, and holding the men’s and women’s Final Fours at the same site.

“The Kaplan report was extremely exhaustively researched, and they put together some really terrific material, not all of which we were happy to read because it was hard,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said Wednesday in Minneapolis. “Some of it was just hard stuff to read, and their critique was severe in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong.”

So why did Prince’s video resonate as much as it did? 

Timing, according to Nicole LaVoi, director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports.     

“The social political climate following the murder of George Floyd, and the social activism of the WNBA, sort of paved the way for people to be sensitized to social justice issues, including gender equity,” she said. “So when Sedona Prince called out the obvious, people were a little bit primed to be paying attention to this and caring about it more than they had before.”

Successful pay equity fights by the U.S. women’s soccer and hockey national team players over the last few years also contributed to the impact, LaVoi said. All of it was amplified by social media, where LaVoi said women athletes go to provide content and information for their fans to see and share in real time.   

“Female athletes have always had to promote and market themselves through social media because traditional media has overlooked them,” LaVoi said. “Fans of women’s sports … pay attention to content created by female athletes. 

“So when Sedona Prince did that tweet and called out the inequities, people were hungry for interactions with athletes because we’d all been cooped up and were hungry for sports to regain its normality. I think it was the perfect storm of social, cultural, political moments sort of coming together.”

Among other things, the Kaplan Report revealed the NCAA spent $35 million more on the men’s tournament in 2019, the last year before the pandemic, than the women’s. It also found a startling discrepancy in rights fees it receives from TV networks for each tournament. 

This year, the NCAA will take in roughly $850 million from a men’s tournament deal with CBS and Turner, a figure expected to rise to nearly $1.1 billion annually from 2024 and 2032. But the NCAA lumped the women’s tournament with 28 other championships in an ESPN package that pays substantially less — $34 million annually. 

An independent analyst told Kaplan women’s basketball alone could be worth between $81 million and $112 million annually by 2025, the year after the ESPN contract expires. The current deal, signed in 2011, left millions on the table and looks exceptionally shortsighted given the rise in women’s tournament TV ratings and attendance. Seven of the eight Final Fours before the pandemic sold out, and NCAA officials expect this one to as well, with Hopkins High product Paige Bueckers of Connecticut as the hometown draw. 

“We’re heading into just the right period to be looking at and determine the best approach going forward for a new contract,” Emmert said. “Whether that’s splitting up sports, whether that’s keeping some of it together, we’ll have to determine that. And we’ll have to work with outside experts, as we always do, who provide the necessary data and expertise in all of that.”

UConn Coach Geno Auriemma says he’s less concerned about weight rooms and gift bags than the actual schedule. UConn needed two overtimes Monday night to beat North Carolina State in the Bridgeport Regional final. The Huskies got back to campus at 2 a.m. Tuesday, then flew to Minneapolis later that day. They’ll play the late semifinal Friday night against defending champion Stanford. The men, meanwhile, enjoy a much longer break between Regional finals last Saturday and Sunday and the Final Four semifinals this Saturday in New Orleans. 

Auriemma also isn’t keen on playing both Final Fours at the same site, because it suggests the women’s Final Four isn’t viable enough to stand on its own.  

“Why don’t you address things that actually help kids get ready to play their best basketball at the most important time of the year?” he said Tuesday on a national conference call. “But we’ve got the weight room squared away, and I’m sure we got other things squared away, but we don’t get squared away the things that are most important. I don’t think having the Final Four at the same place is right now the most pressing issue that we have in this game.”

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose 1,157 career victories are the most in NCAA history, agrees the Final Fours should remain separate. “I think the Kaplan Report was very valuable,” she said Thursday at the Target Center. “I thought they had a lot of great, great recommendations … But I think right now, we’re in a good place and our tournament is really growing. Ratings are up on television. We just have to keep, I think, in the direction that we’re going and keep doing what we’re doing.”

This weekend the Final Four returns to the Target Center for the first time since 1995, when UConn won the first of its 11 national championships under Auriemma. Minneapolis also hosted the 1977 AIAW National Large College Championship, a forerunner to the NCAA Final Four, at Williams Arena, with All-American and tournament MVP Lusia Harris leading Delta State to the championship.

Though UConn will be making its 14th consecutive Final Four appearance this weekend, top-ranked South Carolina with Naismith Award winner Aliyah Boston appears the team to beat. The 6-5 Boston leads the NCAA with 28 double-doubles.

A growing number of Minnesotans took star turns in this year’s tournament, among them Lauren Jensen of Creighton (Lakeville) and Hannah Sjerven of South Dakota (Rogers). But only Bueckers, last year’s consensus national player of the year as a freshman, brought her team home with her. 

Still recovering from a serious knee injury, Bueckers (pronounced BECK-ers) took over the regional final, scoring 15 of her game-high 27 points in the two overtimes. At one point she made eight consecutive shots. Even with all the issues swirling around the tournament and its future, Bueckers figures to be the center of attention. Nothing new there.

“Paige is a walking distraction,” Auriemma said Thursday. “So it doesn’t matter where we are, whether we’re at school or whether we’re here. There’s just stuff that follows her around, and it’s fine. Our players are okay with it. They understand it. She doesn’t make a big deal about it.

“I don’t know that she’s called a team meeting and said, ‘Look, we’re going to Minneapolis and it’s all about me going home, and isn’t it great?’ I don’t think there’s any of that going on.”

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