Today’s guest columnist is Amy Huchthausen, commissioner of the America East Conference.
Shock. Outrage. Indignation. Those were just some of the reactions to the stark resource differences between this year’s NCAA Women’s and Men’s Basketball Championships. These reactions and the ensuing criticism came from student-athletes, coaches, administrators, commissioners and the general public—even those who do not follow sports. It was that kind of story.
The NCAA responded by hiring an outside law firm to conduct a review of basketball, which will expand to all championships. It remains to be seen whether the final report will be shared with the membership, but we now wait until the review is complete.
While obvious disparities like weight rooms are easily resolved, there are more fundamental concerns. Historically, discussions around the women’s basketball tournament have been about controlling expenses. We’ve heard this narrative before. The women’s basketball tournament does not generate profit. It loses so much money. Those facts are not necessarily in dispute. But does that justify a men’s tournament whose spending seems largely unchecked, thereby making equity between the two even more difficult to achieve? The dichotomy between one tournament spending without limits while the other is instructed to reduce expenses is a clear inequity. There are legitimate financial dilemmas that can’t be ignored, but they should no longer be the perpetual crutch on which we’ve leaned on for years.
Further, should it be acceptable for a nonprofit organization that consists of colleges and universities who are bound by Title IX to simply say that “men’s basketball makes all the money” to justify inequity? That’s certainly not an acceptable answer for our schools—that football or men’s basketball make the most, so everyone else just has to deal with it—and it should not be an acceptable answer for the NCAA.
Instead of the narrow focus on expenses, the conversation should shift to revenues. Clearly, the men’s tournament is positioned to maximize revenue. Can we say the same about the women’s? Its broadcast rights are bundled with over 20 NCAA championships in a 14-year deal with ESPN. This provides a measure of financial certainty, but it does not provide women’s basketball (or any of the other sports, for that matter) an incentive to grow. This creates a spiral, reducing the incentive for the NCAA to increase its investment since there would be little to zero ROI.
Similarly, the sponsorship rights for the women’s basketball tournament (and again, all other sports) are controlled by Turner/CBS as part of the NCAA’s overall deal. How does that deal structure provide an opportunity to attract sponsors who may wish to target select sports? This goes beyond simply whether the NCAA decides to use the March Madness moniker that it owns for women’s basketball. A Sportico column this week made the argument that sponsors are leaving money on the table. It appears the NCAA is doing the same by restricting women’s basketball from taking advantage of an emerging market.
All we need to look at is the growing sponsorship portfolio of the WNBA, NWSL and PLL. Or the capital being invested by an increasingly more diverse set of ownership groups like Angel City FC or the Atlanta Dream. Or the investments in the creation of professional leagues in lacrosse, volleyball and softball. This is not a coincidence. It reflects an evolving and growing market for sports traditionally viewed as secondary. That market, combined with sophisticated tools available to measure performance and target fans, creates opportunities to develop assets that heretofore were viewed as having little to no value. And value creation at the national level would have positive downstream effects at the conference and institutional level, thereby creating a positive, reinforcing loop for growth.
It’s time for the NCAA to adapt its mindset and position women’s basketball as a legitimate asset. It’s time to unlock the sponsorship constraints on the NCAA corporate champion and sponsor program to expand the funnel. Doing so would attract new sponsors for women’s basketball and all other sports that are similarly constrained. A more intentional effort to create value around women’s college basketball, rather than merely support it, is a fundamentally different approach to how we’ve operated for decades. Are we going to sit on the sidelines and simply watch what’s happening in the WNBA or NWSL without trying to learn what’s driving the increased investments in women’s sports? If so, what an enormous, missed opportunity.
So while the immediate attention has rightly been focused on the visible disparities between San Antonio and Indianapolis, the systemic inequities underlying the model are far more important. We must closely observe whether the NCAA’s external review will dig deeply enough to surface these issues.
If we truly care about gender equity and believe it matters, we need the leadership, will and courage to act and finally address deficiencies in the model, so that we can restore confidence in the thousands of young women who deserve an equitable, fair and memorable experience.
The America East commissioner since 2011, Huchthausen has also worked for the NCAA, ACC, Missouri Valley and Big East. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where she played softball, and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.