March Madness is here, with the men’s tournament going full tilt and the women getting underway on Sunday. However, the start of the Big Dance has been partly overshadowed by stories of disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments that surfaced as schools arrived to their respective bubbles in Indianapolis and San Antonio.
Stark differences in facilities and food, swag bags and even COVID-19 testing have come under scrutiny. Collegiate and professional athletes, from Alex Morgan to Dwyane Wade to Steph Curry, have decried the inconsistencies on social media. Politicians have chimed in, too.
Behind it all are even bigger disparities between the finances of the tournaments—and the teams.
The men’s DI tournament is literally a billion-dollar business. Turner and CBS currently pay the NCAA about $770 million per year for rights to the men’s tournament. That average will jump to $1.1 billion annually starting in 2025, thanks to an extension signed in 2016.
While it doesn’t generate anything close to the men’s tournament, the women’s tournament does bring in revenue, mainly through its own TV rights. The NCAA has a 14-year, $500 million deal with ESPN that covers a wide-ranging series of championships, including the men’s basketball National Invitational Tournament, the College World Series and the women’s basketball tournament. Though it’s not broken out by event, the contract will pay the NCAA $41.8 million this year.
If No. 1 seed Gonzaga wins the men’s NCAA Tournament, they’ll bank more than $10 million for the West Coast Conference. That’s because each game played in men’s March Madness earns a “unit” for the participating team’s conference, and each unit carries a monetary value. That money is paid out over a six-year span, so it’ll get added onto the units the Bulldogs secured for the conference in the last five tournaments.
If No. 1 seed Stanford wins the women’s NCAA Tournament, the Pac-12 won’t get a single penny for it. Unlike the men’s version, there’s no compensation for participation from the NCAA for either Stanford or its athletic conference. Women’s March Madness appearances aren’t factored into the NCAA’s annual distributions the way participation in the men’s tournament is.
What athletic departments spend on their men’s vs. women’s basketball programs dramatically differs. Expenses for the four No. 1 seeds (South Carolina, NC State, UConn and Stanford) in the women’s tournament average just over $6 million, according to EADA data from 2019, the last year a full season was completed. Those same institutions spent an average of almost $9 million on each of their men’s teams. The top four seeds in this year’s men’s tournament (Baylor, Gonzaga, Illinois and Michigan) spent an average of $10 million in 2019, compared with $5.7 million on average for their women’s teams.
Among the No. 1 seeds in the women’s tournament, UConn spent the most in 2019. The Huskies’ $7.8 million was more than double NC State’s $3.5 million. Of the men’s top seeds, Gonzaga’s $10.5 million in expenses leads, but not by much. Spending by all No.1 seeds in the men’s tournament fell within a few hundred thousand dollars of one another, with Baylor’s $9.8 million marking the smallest amount among the foursome.
When you zoom out to the top four seeds in each tournament, the same pattern holds. The top 16 teams in the women’s tournament spend nearly 50% less than the 16 top men’s teams.
Sportico will be publishing one short business highlight every weekday (and on some weekend days) during the three-week NCAA tournament.
March 18: The NCAA’s Billion-Dollar Empire is Built on Basketball