The first round of the women’s March Madness tournament wrapped Saturday night with a whole lot of chalk up top followed up a slew of financial upsets—where underdog teams with fractional budgets shocked their bigger, better-funded opponents. The upsets that brought chaos early on the men’s side did the same on the women’s side, though amongst lower-seeded tournament teams.
Money talked atop the women’s bracket. Across the upper echelons of the women’s slate, schools like UConn, Baylor and South Carolina outspent their opponents by around $6 million, according to data schools submit annually to the U.S. Department of Education. These figures are from 2020, the last full year for which data is available.
The tournament’s top seeds, filled with women’s basketball programs with the biggest budgets, walked right on to the second round without issue—all the No. 1 seeds (South Carolina—which beat Howard by a whopping 58 points—Louisville, Stanford and NC State), No. 2’s (Iowa, Texas, Baylor and UConn) No. 3’s (Iowa State, LSU, Michigan and Indiana) and No. 4’s (Tennessee, Arizona, Maryland and Oklahoma) advanced to the Round of 32. Only four of those 16 teams won with a margin of fewer than 10 points.
But bigger spenders didn’t win out across the board. Eight financial mismatches ultimately featured victories by the program with the smaller budget. That’s the same number seen on the men’s side, though the average spending gap between what two opposing athletic departments spend annually was significantly narrower on the women’s side. This is likely because the budgets of the most well-endowed men’s tournament teams can be as much as 2.5x bigger than those of even the best-funded women’s programs.
Of the 32 first-round games played in the opening women’s tournament, the biggest financial upset came when perennial big spender No. 6 Kentucky, whose $5.6 million budget is nearly 5x the Princetons’ women’s basketball budget, fell to the No. 11 Tigers. The financial gap between the two rang in at nearly $4.5 million, while the biggest mismatch in the first round on the men’s side hit almost $17 million. (No. 15 Saint Peter’s, with a men’s basketball budget of $1.6 million stunned second-seeded Kentucky, whose $18.3 million budget is among the biggest in the nation.)
No. 5 seeds Oregon and Virginia Tech outspent their victorious opponents, No. 12's Belmont and Florida Gulf Coast University, respectively, by the second-largest sums, though those gaps totaled around $3 million apiece. Perennial big spender Ole Miss, a No. 7 seed, faced a similar fate. The Rebels' ($4.6 million) early exit from the tournament in the first round came at the hands of No. 10 seeded South Dakota ($1.4 million).
Exactly half of Sunday and Monday’s second-round games feature spending gaps greater than $2 million—the biggest disparity hitting nearly $7 million.
Sportico will be publishing short business highlights throughout the three-week NCAA tournament.
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March 18: Upsets Abound Beyond St. Peter’s