Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.
As the NCAA Convention raced to its predicted, decentralized conclusion in Indianapolis earlier this month, with the association ceding power to each of its three Divisions, one small germ of an idea was quietly floated (behind closed doors) that warrants real consideration.
Despite all the brickbats from NIL legislation and the Alston Supreme Court decision, wouldn’t it be stunning, historic even, if the NCAA decided to combine the men’s and women’s Final Four basketball events into a single-city, single weekend package?
Think of it. Eight of the nation’s best basketball teams playing six games to crown two champions. Think what that could do for a host city’s economy. Think what it could do for gender equity. Think what it could do for basketball.
Instantly, you would have a mega-event at least on a par with the NBA Finals, the FIBA World Cups, and assuredly the gold medal games at the Summer Olympics. Speaking of the Games, every Olympics since Montreal has proved multi-team basketball championships involving two genders can be staged in one city.
Other precedents also exist. We’ve long watched combined Grand Slam events in pro tennis. Australia, Paris, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open would never dream of staging two different events, because they would divide the power of their championship assets and reduce their reach and ratings.
Could the NCAA make such an important statement?
Of course, and the reasons are logical. Past women’s basketball Final Fours have made clear the NCAA struggles to operate two equal championships in separate cities during the same weekend. And in a highly visible crucible—college sports—an entity that by law is supposed to provide gender equity, women should not have to make sacrifices on multiple fronts.
Additionally, experts agree the NCAA is short-changing itself in its approach to the women’s tournament, and last March, the association bore the ignominy of getting exposed for giving its top women’s teams inferior workout facilities and food services, compared to the men.
But what if, in 2023 or 2024, the NCAA made sure the eight teams that advanced through March Madness all arrived in one setting, and during one five-day burst, the association staged hard-to-get-a-ticket double-headers in front of a dual assemblage of loyal fans? The world’s basketball media could gather in one place. Commissioners and athletic directors could avoid jetting to multiple settings. The NCAA would see true economies of scale.
The NCAA could also, in recognizing past sexism, make the men’s championship game the warmup act to the women’s game. The rationalists among us might worry about TV ratings, but with the right consultants and promotional experts weighing in, the NCAA could ensure gender equity triumphed during the biggest basketball spectacle of all time.
In one symbolic gesture, the NCAA would achieve solidarity, equity, convenience, innovation and growth, not only in terms of the revenue pie but also its share of the sports marketplace.
Would Orlando, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Atlanta, Las Vegas or San Antonio bid to host this event? Most assuredly. Could the NCAA sell T-shirts with eight team logos on them? Absolutely. Could young NIL entrepreneurs flood the social media galaxy with historic endorsements. Unquestionably.
So, what’s the problem with this idea? It starts with the power brokers. And it’s not the usual suspects.
This is not a decision Mark Emmert, or conference commissioners like Greg Sankey (SEC), Val Ackerman (Big East) Jim Phillips (ACC), Bob Bowlsby (Big 12) or Kevin Warren (Big Ten) can make. This type of opportunity resides with the individuals who quietly control the NCAA Basketball committees and are forceful enough (inside “the machine”) to overcome the usual complaints: It’s too big for us; it will still keep the women secondary to the men; we need more time to think about this; it will kill the ratings; it’s not what our network partners signed up for; there are women’s Final Fours scheduled through 2026.
But the money, prestige and goodwill generated from a single-site men’s and women’s extravaganza could convincingly overcome those heady challenges.
For an organization like the NCAA that has already created a Transformation Committee and hopes to make proactive decisions before Congressional leaders start dictating new rules, a combined Super Championship weekend, with true equity, could create transformation. It could also buy the NCAA a lot of legal “deference” as it prepares for the further undoing of its now-outdated business model.
Already, pro leagues are appointing female coaches, general managers (e.g., the Miami Marlins’ Kim Ng) and trainers. Wouldn’t it be great if the men and women running the NCAA basketball committees want to be remembered for more than functional efficiency? If they do, (and Tom Burnett, commissioner of the Southland Conference, currently chairs the powerful men’s committee), then let them take up the gender equity flag and use 2023 to stage the biggest basketball event ever.
It could produce shots heard ‘round the world.
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and Syracuse’s faculty athletics representative (FAR) to the ACC and NCAA.