Report finds NCAA undervalued women's tourney, prioritized men's basketball over 'everything else'

A law firm hired to investigate disparities between the NCAA’s men’s and women’s basketball championships found there to be “underlying, systemic gender equity issues” at the NCAA, according to a report published Tuesday.

The review, which was completed by Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLC, came after the inadequacies in facilities and amenities at the women’s NCAA Tournament in San Antonio were widely criticized by players and coaches.

“With respect to women’s basketball, the NCAA has not lived up to its stated commitment to ‘diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators,’” the 113-page report stated.

The report made several recommendations to the NCAA, including holding the men’s and women’s Final Fours at the same site, improving cross-promotion — for example, using the “March Madness” trademark for both tournaments — televising the Final Four on ABC, increasing staff with expertise in Title IX, and conducting gender equity assessments every five years.

“Our investigation has revealed broad consensus within the NCAA — from the operational staff to the most senior leadership, from the committees responsible for planning and overseeing basketball championships to the Board of Governors — that it is time for change,” the report said.

UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma told the Associated Press “it’s worth a shot” to combine the Final Fours.

“It’s worth a try,” Auriemma said. “It’s been done successfully with tennis and the Olympics. Will there be enough coverage spread around that no one gets lost in the shuffle there? That’s the question.”

The firm, which specializes in discrimination law, including Title IX, blamed the NCAA for “perpetuating a mistaken narrative” that women’s basketball is destined to lose money year after year.

“The NCAA’s broadcast agreements, corporate sponsorship contracts, distribution of revenue, organizational structure, and culture all prioritize Division I men’s basketball over everything else in ways that create, normalize, and perpetuate gender inequities,” the report said.

“The NCAA does not have the structures or systems in place to identify, prevent, or address those inequities.”

The report cites an independent study by media expert Ed Desser, who estimated that the broadcast rights for the women’s tournament will be worth between $81 and $112 million annually by 2025.

“Even if the NCAA were able to realize only a portion of that estimate as the result of future negotiations, those funds would make a significant difference in the money available to support NCAA championships and the NCAA membership,” the report continued.

Concerns first rose after Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a video from San Antonio in March comparing the women’s weight room, which consisted of a small rack of dumbbells and yoga mats, to the expansive workout room for the men’s tournament in Indianapolis. Discrepancies in food selections, gift bags and even COVID-19 testing were also brought to light.

Women’s basketball is growing in popularity, with TV ratings hitting record numbers. The 2021 national championship between Stanford and Arizona averaged 4.1 million viewers on ESPN and was the most-watched title game since 2014.

In his analysis, Desser also highlighted the star power of UConn guard Paige Bueckers, who has 900,000 followers on Instagram — more than all 20 starters in last year’s men’s Final Four combined.

“Overall, when viewed over the life of the tournaments — the men’s tournament has occurred for 83 years, and the women’s for just 40 — the women’s tournament is on a similar growth trajectory as the men’s,” the report said.

The 2022 men’s and women’s Final Fours are slated to be held in New Orleans and Minneapolis, respectively. However, the report suggested combining the events at the same site no later than the 2022-23 season, saying it would “generate significant incremental value for the (Division I Women’s Basketball Championship) immediately and thus provide the NCAA with a tremendous strategic advantage heading into its ESPN renewal discussion.”

“In our view,” the report added, “combined Final Fours should be held in this manner for at least three or four years to give the NCAA time to fine tune the combined event and assess its full impact. We do not make this recommendation lightly.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour