We need to think about the lies we’ve been told about women’s sports. That no one wants to watch us play. That the markets don’t support our success. That we should be grateful that they let us in the gym.
The more you look into the economics of sports however, the more you see that the glass ceiling is being maintained and reinforced in real time.
The latest example of this comes from the Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP report entitled NCAA External Gender Equity Review, but really it details the lack thereof. The report finds that the NCAA itself is responsible for holding back the growth of women’s basketball through apathy while chasing the glory and cash of the men’s game.
From the executive summary:
“The results have been cumulative, not only fostering skepticism and distrust about the sincerity of the NCAA’s commitment to gender equity, but also limiting the growth of women’s basketball and perpetuating a mistaken narrative that women’s basketball is destined to be a ‘money loser’ year after year.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. The future for women’s sports in general, and women’s basketball in particular, is bright.”
If only women athletes didn’t have to fight so hard to get the respect they’ve earned. And we should all have a national moment of silence to thank Oregon’s Sedona Prince for her impromptu video that forced the NCAA to recognize the stark inequities of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments this year.
The problem is that the NCAA, the report finds, was so enamored with the revenue available in the men’s game that it has not maximized the value of the women’s game in broadcasting and sponsorship. It determined, through comparing sports broadcasting contracts, that ESPN is paying tens of millions less annually for the women’s tournament than those rights should get, in part because the women’s tournament has been bundled with 28 other sports.
“This significant undervaluation is the result of the growing popularity of women’s basketball, a changing media landscape, and the fact that the championship’s media rights have not been up for competitive bid in nearly two decades,” the report reads.
How is it that the NCAA would leave money on the table? Impossible! Leagues only see green, right?
Except this happens in women’s sports all the time.
Do you remember when Nike so dramatically underestimated the market for USWNT jerseys after their 2019 World Cup victory? The scarcity of jerseys was presented like a victory for the U.S. women, “They are so popular!” When in reality it was a market demand that was unmet, and a negotiating point that women would not be able to use because the scale of their success in jersey sales was an unknown.
Why would U.S. Soccer and Nike make an error like that? The initial manufacturing order for the four-star jerseys was for only 1,000 jerseys according to Caitlin Murray’s post-World Cup reporting in Yahoo. U.S. Soccer has also bundled the broadcasting rights for the USWNT with Major League Soccer, which the women have argued keeps them from being able to maximize the value of their highly-rated games.
Both U.S. Soccer and NCAA basketball are in charge of managing a women’s and a men’s competition. Both organizations, it could be argued, are way more invested in the success of one of those branches than the other. You can’t “well, actually” a sports organization into caring about the women’s side of the game, or even in maximizing its revenue.
But a commissioned report can make the case quite cogently. The Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP report recommends that the NCAA maximize revenue in the women’s game, staff both tournaments equitably and have someone in charge of scrutinizing tournament planning for gender equity in real time. These solutions seem so completely basic that it’s shocking the NCAA actually paid someone to deliver this very sound advice.
But even better, the report recommends combining tournaments into a Grand Slam-like Final Four, where the games are given equal weight and recognition.
Imagine a U.S. Open of sorts, a basketball-a-palooza of March Madness where both the women and men can use the trademarked phrase. Where fans get to see the best of both sports. Where the facilities and concerts and hype for all the games are similar, and where women aren’t made to feel like second-class players.
It actually makes economic sense. The co-ed format has been a boon to the men’s and women’s tennis tours. Interest in both games adds scale that neither tour can match on its own, and the revenue follows. The fact that the World Cup, NCAA and other sports leagues don’t look to pair up, shows men’s sports would rather leave revenue on the table than grow the women’s side of the game. Every so often, there are still some in tennis, see Novak Djokovic and Gilles Simon, who grumble about equal pay in the Slams, despite the likelihood that their own tournament checks are fatter for it.
The NCAA has often highlighted the athletic opportunities it provides women, but this report focuses on what the NCAA quietly denies those athletes. And from fighting against implementing Title IX at the organizational level, to keeping women’s teams from revenue-sharing in basketball, the inequity is entrenched. The NCAA sends a message every March that women’s sports aren’t as important, and it’s broadcasting that message to college campuses across the country.
But now that the report has been issued, the NCAA can tearfully apologize. And return to business as usual.