The 2021-22 college hoops campaign tipped off this month after an off-season filled with conversations about the NCAA’s comparative treatment of men’s and women’s sports. Disparities found at last spring’s men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments prompted an outside analysis of gender equity within the college sports’ governing body. But instances of such inequities aren’t exclusive to the NCAA. Spending gaps are common within athletic departments, even in sports played by both men and women, like basketball, with relatively equal roster sizes and sport needs.
During the 2020 fiscal year, which captured the 2019-20 winter basketball season, disparities in travel-related expenses for men’s and women’s basketball teams at public Power 5 institutions and UConn amounted to $20.6 million. Men’s basketball teams outspent their female counterparts in non-travel meals by a factor of two—just some of the spending disparities found in figures disclosed by schools to the NCAA in annual financial reports, obtained through open records requests and now documented in Sportico’s intercollegiate finances database.
Those gaps almost always favored the men’s program, even at some of the top women’s basketball programs in the country. UConn’s men’s basketball team, for instance, spent nearly $100,000 more on non-travel meals than the women’s team did during FY20. The same year, the Huskies’ men’s team outspent the women by half a million dollars on travel, which accounts for expenses that include flights or bus costs, food and lodging.
South Carolina—one of the few schools to spend more on its women’s teams than its men’s in a handful of categories, including coaching compensation—still spent twice as much on meals for its men’s basketball team than its women’s. The school said it accounts for standalone team meals and food supplies like snacks in that non-travel meals category, but didn’t know where the difference in spending between its programs stemmed from.
“The honest truth is that we try to provide what our teams need to compete in the SEC, and women's basketball has the same squad size as men's basketball, and they play at the same arena,” the Gamecocks CFO Jeff Tallant said in an interview. “That’s why travel and game expenses are all relatively the same. For meals, I’m scared to say—the men eat more? Maybe they have more food?”
Seven of the eight athletic department representatives Sportico spoke with in the process of reporting this story echoed similar reasoning for the meal spending discrepancies, though less hesitantly.
Tennessee, the only top-tier athletic department to spend significantly more on women than men in the meals category, stands in stark contrast to a school like Arizona, which reported $272,133 in meal expenses for its men’s team to $61,468 for its women’s team. Kentucky’s numbers are similarly stunning, with just shy of $17,000 reported for women’s team meals to almost $114,000 to nourish the team assembled by John Calipari, the highest-paid men’s college basketball coach in the country. Team overall travel numbers also tell a parallel story, featuring an almost $800,000 disparity at Arizona and more than a million dollar gap at Kentucky.
Arizona’s athletic department attributed the gap in travel expenses to “a difference in the frequency of use of airplane charters between men’s and women’s basketball.” (The other programs who Sportico spoke to said both their men’s and women’s teams receive the same travel treatment, uniformly flying charter or commercial when bus travel isn’t possible). The school did not comment on differences in its meal spending or other categories but said it plans to address the travel disparities moving forward in budget and planning processes.
“Unfortunately, those numbers are what I would expect given all the sex discrimination that we've seen in every single facet [of college athletics],” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a four-time Olympic swimming medalist and the CEO of advocacy group Champion Women, said in a phone interview. “I'm not surprised one little bit. There is no place—not Division I, II or III, not the northwest vs. the south, not an NAIA school—a woman can go and not face sex discrimination.”
(Hogshead-Makar also added that when she was training as a swimmer, she “ate like a family of four, 7,000 calories a day.”)
Kentucky, whose women’s basketball program has finished in the Top 25 nationally in 11 of the past 12 years, said it “generally approves” the budgets as requested by each team annually. When asked if men’s and women’s coaches and sport administrators were aware of their counterparts’ budget requests and approvals, Kentucky said all of the information is available through open records requests.
It is worth noting that team size is not exactly the same within the two programs at all Power 5 institutions, but, in most cases, participant numbers are comparable, if not even. Nebraska, whose men’s team had 20 athletes in during the 2020 fiscal year to its women’s 13, is one of the few schools with a roster imbalance. Expense budgets are also set independent of revenue generated, all schools said.
Another important caveat: Despite the NCAA’s attempts to standardize revenue and expense reporting practices across its participating institutions, there is still no accounting standard, making comparisons between schools imperfect. For example, some schools include money spent on training table meals (the one meal provided daily for scholarship athletes outside of their institution’s meal plan) in the non-travel meals category for each individual program, while others choose not to break the expense down by team, instead including it in a lump sum figure for the department as a whole. That said, schools use the same accounting principles across each of their programs, making cost comparisons within the same athletic department—particularly between comparable programs, like men’s and women’s basketball—more reliable markers of equity, or a lack thereof.
The disparities in the data within athletic departments not only raise concerns about fairness, but also about Title IX violations.
“The raw numbers raised some very serious questions about whether these schools are complying with Title IX,” Arthur Bryant, an attorney at Bailey Glasser LLP, said in an interview. Bryant noted that while Title IX does not require equal spending on a dollar-by-dollar basis, it does mandate equal treatment of and benefits to men’s and women's programs on the whole. “These numbers pretty blatantly suggest that in many categories, many of these schools are not doing that.”
In theory, if a school was spending significantly more on its women’s programs outside of the basketball team, compared to its men, the disparity might be deemed acceptable. Or if substantial differences existed in equipment needs or travel expenses, perhaps the gap could be justified.
“In basketball, that's extremely unlikely,” Bryant added. “It's hard to imagine any kind of non-discriminatory difference that would account for some of these huge gaps. These schools need to look at what's happening here very seriously, because it sure looks like blatant discrimination going on.”
That examination process has happened at some schools already—albeit unwillingly. Iowa underwent a review by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2017 after a Title IX complaint was filed, alleging the University discriminates against women in the Hawkeyes’ athletics department on the basis of sex. The school reached an agreement with the OCR, but then found itself sued in 2020 by a group of female athletes who argued that plans to cut women’s swimming and diving were a violation of Title IX’s gender equity requirements. UConn and Michigan State are among the several other schools recently sued for alleged Title IX violations.
“All of these numbers [raise Title IX concerns],” Hogshead-Makar said. “There’s much more work to be done.”