One TikTok Changed the Trajectory of the NCAA and Women’s Basketball

            The NCAA’s stance on gender equity is that it has always striven for gender equity in intercollegiate sports. The NCAA failed to promote gender equity during the 2021 NCAA Division I Basketball Tournaments. This failure was displayed on social media with players and coaches highlighting every inadequacy by the NCAA to provide equitable opportunities to both genders. The NCAA made slight changes to the 2022 Division I Basketball Tournaments to make them more equitable. However, those changes are just the starting point.

“Division I basketball player Sedona Prince sparked a long overdue conversation regarding the inequities of the men and women’s Division I Basketball Tournament.” Photo Credit.

2021 Division I Basketball Tournaments

A viral social media post on “TikTok” for Division I basketball player Sedona Prince sparked a long overdue conversation regarding the inequities of the men and women’s Division I Basketball Tournament. Where is Title IX in the NCAA Weight Rooms?, Forbes, (Apr. 20, 2022).  Sedona Prince used her social media platform to uncover the realities of what it is like to be a female Division I athlete during the NCAA Tournament. She showed the practice facilities, weight room, swag bags, and food provided to the women players, while the men players posted about their lavish meals, extensive swag bags, state of the art weight room, fully branded courts, and so much more. The discrepancies were not the result of a few extra dollars spent on the men’s teams. The NCAA simply did not spend the same time and money on the women’s tournament as it did on the men’s tournament.

The women’s teams were given a weight room that was of lesser quality than most at-home gyms. It consisted of a few dumbbells and yoga mats. Cecelia Townes, Where is Title IX in the NCAA Weight Rooms?, Forbes, (Apr. 20, 2022). Comparatively, the men’s teams were offered a state-of-the-art gym containing every piece of equipment you could think of. Id. This was the first inadequacy that caught the world’s attention after Oregon University’s basketball player Sedona Prince posted a viral “TikTok” highlighting the disparities between the men’s and women’s weight rooms. Id. From there it was discovered not only was the women’s weight room vastly underdeveloped compared to the men’s, but the women were also offered lesser quality food and smaller “swag bags”.  Also, women were not allowed to have as many fans attend their games as the men, their Covid-19 tests were inferior, and more. Alex Azzi, All of the Disparities at the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, NBCSports, (Apr. 20, 2022).

In 2021, the NCAA had set aside $125.55 per player on the initial set of gifts for the men’s tournament and only $60.42 per player for the women’s tournament. Henry Bushnell, What’s Changed Since NCAA’s Inequity Failings Were Exposed During Last Year’s Tournament?, Yahoo, (April 29, 2022).  The NCAA also spent more than $70,000 on personal hygiene kits for the men’s teams, but not the women’s teams. Id. The NCAA also spent more on airport signage, street pole banners, team bus décor, locker room furnishings, lounges and much more for the men’s team. Id.

Both the men’s and women’s teams were given “swag bags” upon their arrival at the NCAA tournaments. Brendan Menapace, The NCAA Is Taking Heat for Women’s Tournament Swag Bags (and Missing ‘March Madness’ Branding), PromoMarketing, (Apr. 22, 2022). However, the men’s “swag bag” was filled with everything they could need to maintain COVID-19 protocols, plus a blanket, towels, a book, a hat, plenty of toiletries, and so much more. Id. The men’s teams even had branded bedding with the NCAA “March Madness” logo, a branded puzzle, and a branded towel. Id.

The women’s teams did not receive half of what the men received. The women received a small towel, one t-shirt, two water bottles, an umbrella, a drawstring bag, socks, and three toiletry items. Id. Their bedding was not branded, nor did any of their items include “March Madness” on them. The NCAA failed to treat both genders equitably when it came to the “swag bags” given to the athletes.

            The difference in the food provided to the men’s and women’s teams is yet another inequity of the tournaments. University of Oregon basketball player Sedona Prince documented the food provided to her and her teammates, as well as their reaction to eating the food. Alex Azzi, All of the Disparities at the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, NBCSports, (Apr. 22, 2022). The female student-athletes were given prepackaged meals that upon taking one bite of, both Prince and her other teammate spit right out. Id. This is compared to the men’s teams, which were provided with buffet-style meals with multiple different options. Id. Although both genders received a benefit, again the quality and quantity of the benefit provided to the women were grossly inadequate and unequal.    

            The inequitable treatment of women during the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments is evident in the difference in the number of fans allowed at the men’s tournament compared to the women’s tournament. The men’s tournament permitted 25% capacity for the venue for all rounds of the tournament. The women were only allowed 17% capacity for the venue from the Sweet 16 to the Final Four games. Rick Nixon, NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship to Allow Limited Fan Attendance, NCAA, (Apr. 22, 2022); see also Stacey Osburn, NCAA to Allow Limited Fan Attendance at Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, NCAA, (Apr. 22, 2022).

The NCAA used the same justification for allowing 25% capacity at the men’s tournament, but only 17% capacity at the women’s tournament. The capacity percentage for both tournaments included all student-athletes, coaches, essential staff, and fans. The most ironic statement by the NCAA upon releasing the justifications for the capacity of each tournament was for the men’s tournament they called it a “once-in-a-lifetime tournament” and stated no such thing for the women’s tournament. Stacey Osburn, NCAA to Allow Limited Fan Attendance at Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, NCAA, (Apr. 22, 2022). It is quite clear the NCAA believes the men’s tournament is a more important “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity that more people should be a part of than the women’s tournament. The NCAA failed to provide any additional justification for why the percentage allowed at each tournament was so vastly different.

            The disparities in marketing and branding for the men’s versus the women’s tournaments are astonishing. On March 22, the NCAA’s digital media hub had over one thousand photos from the men’s tournament. Alex Azzi, All of the Disparities at the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, NBCSports, (Apr. 22, 2022). There was not a single photo from the women’s tournament. Id. In addition, the NCAA provided interview transcription services for all post-game press conferences at the men’s tournament, but was not offering the same service till the Sweet 16 of the women’s tournament. Id. The men also received special branding on the basketball courts at the start of the tournament, at the Sweet 16, and finally at the Elite 8. Id. Four out of the five venues being used for the women’s tournament did not have any branding on the basketball courts related to the tournament. Id. The only exception was in the Alamodome that featured every game starting with the Sweet 16. Id.

            Even the Covid-19 tests used for the men’s and women’s tournaments were different. The men’s teams were tested daily using “PCR tests”, while the women’s teams were given daily antigen tests. Id. The antigen tests are less expensive and generally less sensitive to detecting the virus early, according to the CDC. Id. This is another way in which the NCAA violated its policies on the equitable treatment of genders during the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments.

The NCAA failed to provide even remotely similar quality and quantity of weight-room equipment to the women during the NCAA tournament. The weight room facility provided by the NCAA to the women’s teams during the tournament included a couple of yoga mats and a few dumbbells, with none above 30 pounds. Tom Gatto, Oregon Players Help Expose Endless Gender Gap at NCAA Women’s Tournament, Sporting News, (Apr. 22, 2022). The men’s weight room facility consisted of multiple racks, ladders, dumbbells, and much more. Id. The videos and pictures of the weight rooms provide ample evidence of just how extreme this disparity was. The men were awarded a full-functioning gym, while the women were given a few weights.

            The NCAA stated its reason for limiting the women’s weight room facility was due to space. However, Oregon University basketball player Sedona Prince debunked that by showing just how much space was open behind their practice court. Id. Not only was there more than adequate space to build a weight room facility, but the NCAA was also able to find a space and build a weight room within two days of intense social media backlash. Id. Their reason for limited space was an excuse to cover up their failure in leadership to provide a gender-equitable experience to both the men and women during the Division I Basketball Tournaments.

The excuse that the men’s basketball tournament generates more revenue compared to the women’s tournament to justify that the men receive more benefits falls on its face because the NCAA states that it believes in supporting all of its student-athletes. NCAA, Where Does the Money Go?, NCAA, (Apr. 22, 2022). The money generated from the tournament and other sports are used to create scholarships and other programs to ensure student-athletes across all divisions can play. Id. The NCAA is a non-profit organization the main purpose of which is to give men and women the opportunity to compete at an intercollegiate level while obtaining an education. Id. In fact, the NCAA states that it has an inclusive, equality-based mission but yet every aspect of the 2021 Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments was discriminatory.

2022 Changes to the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournaments

After extreme backlash from social media, the public, and the athletes, the NCAA made a few changes to make the tournaments more equitable. However, these changes are just the beginning if the NCAA seeks to promote gender equity like it claims to do.

The NCAA began its changes with expanding the women’s tournament to 68 teams. Joseph Salvador, NCAA Set to Make Significant Changes to Women’s Tourney, Sports Illustrated, (April 29, 2022). It is now the same size as the men’s tournament. This change is ironic because it is one of the only inadequacies that was not highlighted last year during the NCAA tournament. This will allow more women’s teams to have the opportunity to play in the tournament. However, this change does little to help the women’s programs since they still currently do not earn anything from attending the tournament.

Currently, the men’s conferences earn a unit (which was valued at $338,210.96 this year) for each tournament game one of their men’s team plays in. Kristi Dosh, NCAA Bullish on Change for Women’s Basketball Tournament Revenue and Distribution, Forbes, (April 29, 2022). This money goes to each team’s conference. The women’s teams earn nothing. Id. This alone is a major disadvantage to women’s teams. It gives member schools less incentives to invest into their women’s programs versus their men’s programs.

For the first time in program history, the women’s tournament is now branded as “March Madness”. Michael Hill, NCAA Extending March Madness Name to Women’s Tournament for the First Time, NewscastStudio, (April 29, 2022). There are slight differences between the men’s and women’s logo. The women’s tournament will “use a modified version of the logo with diagonal marks below the “M” in “March” and under the word “Madness” shifted in orange”. Id. While the coverage on the extent of the branding is lacking, this was a glaring inadequacy from last year. Last year, the men’s tournament had March Madness branding on everything from the courts and the basketballs to the bedding and towels. This was not well covered at this year’s tournament, but changing the branding to be the same for both tournaments is a start.

The NCAA also added two new Twitter handles for the different tournaments. Id. Instead of having the handle @MarchMadness to only discuss the men’s tournament, that handle was deactivated and replaced with @MarchMadnessMBB (men’s basketball) and @MarchMadnessWBB (women’s basketball). Id. Another small change that can be seen on social media is the use of the hashtag #MarchMadness for both tournaments. Id. This type of change, while small, makes a huge difference for fan engagement.

In the past, the women’s tournament competed for viewership with the men’s tournament for the selection show that is held before the start of the tournaments. Joseph Salvador, NCAA Set to Make Significant Changes to Women’s Tourney, Sports Illustrated, (April 29, 2022).  Both selection shows were held on a Sunday and fans had to choose between the two selection shows. Id. The men’s selection show dominated the fan viewership. This year, the NCAA moved the women’s selection show to the Monday after the men’s to get rid of any competition for viewership between the two.

The NCAA also changed the compensation rates for the referees of the women’s tournament. Id. Prior to the 2022 tournaments, referees for the men’s tournament were paid more than referees for the women’s tournament. The NCAA also will now be offering the same opportunities for fan engagement at both the men’s and women’s tournaments, such as allowing fans to come to open practices. Id. Changes were also made to the athlete’s experience to make the women’s teams experience more similar to the men’s teams. For the first time ever, the women’s teams were given player lounges, equal weight rooms as the men’s, and the same exact swag bags. Kristi Dosh, NCAA Bullish on Change for Women’s Basketball Tournament Revenue and Distribution, Forbes, (April 29, 2022).

The Kaplan report exposed the eight-year contract with CBS and Turner for $8.8 billion for the men’s tournament TV rights. Henry Bushnell, What’s Changed Since NCAA’s Inequity Failings Were Exposed During Last Year’s Tournament?, Yahoo, (April 29, 2022). This contract encouraged and justified the outsized spending on the men’s tournament. while the women’s tournament received barely anything. The women’s basketball tournament is still only a part of a television package that includes 28 other championships and only pays out $34 million a year, Kristi Dosh, NCAA Bullish on Change for Women’s Basketball Tournament Revenue and Distribution, Forbes, (April 29, 2022). While the men’s tournament started in 2016 at an average of $770 million per year with an extension that will reach $1.1 billion in 2025. Id.

The women’s television contract is up in 2024, which gives the NCAA the ability to close the gap in the two contracts. Id. The Kaplan Report found that women’s basketball should be able to obtain a new contract that pays $81-112 million annually. Id. While this is still nowhere close to the men’s contract, it is an improvement.

Conclusion

The changes enacted this year are just the beginning. The NCAA has a long way to go to not only make the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournaments more equitable, but to make all the sports across the divisions more equitable. While they are still positive changes, the biggest change will come from the upcoming TV contract. This will be the NCAA’s chance to close the gap between the two tournaments.

Brooke Leddon '22
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