The NCAA came under intense scrutiny last spring when disparities in athlete experiences at the men’s and women’s Final Fours went viral, a result of broader gender inequities in the NCAA that law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink chronicled in an independent review released this summer.
As the NCAA considers its next steps, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman sees more than just an opportunity for the organization to make amends.
“I just think there’s really room for some imagination right now and creativity in how to take women’s college sports to the next level,” the recent Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee told The Courant at Big East media day on Tuesday.
The NCAA has already committed to allowing the women’s tournament to use the iconic “March Madness” branding, which it was previously unable to do. It’s also expected to expand the tournament from 64 to 68 teams to mirror the men.
But Ackerman, who studied many of these same issues for her 2013 white paper on women’s basketball, doesn’t want the NCAA to make incremental changes, but rather adopt a “strategic focus” and a “vision and a plan that leads to the betterment of women’s basketball and women’s sports.”
A combined Final Four
Ackerman initially advocated for a combined men’s and women’s Final Four, which the Kaplan report also recommended, in 2013.
“Right now, I think it’s the most challenging of all scenarios to be in two different cities on the same weekend,” she said. “It would be like putting the NBA and the WNBA All-Star Games on the same weekend in different cities. So I think to be able to combine sponsors, media, NCAA personnel, and fans most of all would create just a colossal event for college basketball.”
Ackerman pointed to the logistical benefits of having NCAA membership gather in one location. As it is now, she supposes she’s one of a handful of commissioners who travel to both championships. Currently sponsors are more heavily investing, or activating, at the men’s tournament, where there is also a greater media presence. Having everything in one place could help elevate the women’s Final Four.
Combining the Final Fours could model Grand Slams in tennis where the men’s and women’s tours come together, but sequence the competition so that men’s and women’s games aren’t on the same days. With high-profile concerts and fanfests to complement the actual basketball, Ackerman compares the men’s Final Four to the Super Bowl, something that would only benefit the women’s tournament to be a part of.
“Barring that, I think it would be better to have the two events on different weekends so there’s not this competition for sponsor activation, media coverage, travel by NCAA and school personnel,” Ackerman added.
Critics of a joint Final Four argue that fewer cities could accommodate all those NCAA personnel, teams and fans, and many fans fear that prices for hotels and airfare would skyrocket. Some are concerned that women’s basketball would still be positioned as secondary to the men’s championship.
“I don’t think a reason to not do it is because of fears that the women will get overshadowed,” Ackerman said. “I don’t think that’s giving women’s basketball enough credit. I feel very sure that women’s basketball will not get overshadowed.”
Potential media rights unbundling
The Desser Sports Media group conducted an addendum to the Kaplan report on media and sponsorships. There they estimated that the annual broadcast rights for the women’s basketball championship are currently “significantly undervalued” and will be worth $81-$112 million per year in 2025 — much higher than the $34 million annually that ESPN currently pays for the entire package of women’s basketball and 28 other non-men’s basketball championships.
ESPN’s deal for that 29-championship bundle began in 2001, was renewed in 2011 and runs through 2024. The Desser addendum argues: “Because the NCAA has never put the Other Championships package up for competitive bid – either as a collection of properties or broken out individually (e.g., the WBBC bid individually), the NCAA has foregone the single most crucial negotiating tactic in assuring it is receiving fair market value for its media property.”
“It’s sort of a more complex process because of the way the television contract works between ESPN and the NCAA,” Ackerman said. “It would take time to unwind that [package] but I would support the recommendation to test the market value of the women’s tournament, as well as selling independent sponsorships for the women’s championship.”
The Kaplan report asserts that the NCAA’s sponsorship model is structured in a way that only benefits the men’s basketball championship. CBS/Turner, which only owns the broadcast rights for the men’s championship, controls the sponsorship rights for all NCAA championships, which incentivizes sponsorship money to be directed toward the men’s championship. To boot, 0.1% of official sponsorship revenue was earmarked to support non-men’s basketball championships. “The practical effect of the present structure is that the NCAA has Corporate Champions and Partners of the MBBC, but not the NCAA,” Desser wrote.
“You’re not really getting a true sense of the commercial worth of the [women’s] tournament,” Ackerman said. “And I think it could be a revenue opportunity for the NCAA and certainly just as a matter of respect the women deserve the opportunity to have their worth tested.”
The Kaplan report and Ackerman both support the creation of a chief business or marketing officer role within the NCAA, someone who could formulate a strategy for marketing, promoting and sponsorships across all sports.
But in this moment where women’s sports overall are on the rise and the spotlight on gender inequity refuses to go away, developing a robust plan to increase the visibility of a sport like women’s basketball year-round, and not just during the championships, would be beneficial to the athletes, sport and NCAA.
“There’s never really been a strategic vision around commercial possibilities,” Ackerman said. “And I don’t mean in sort of an exploitative way, it just means that like a promotional, increase visibility, giving women’s sports the credit they deserve for having potential in the marketplace. Frankly, other than men’s basketball, there’s never been, except in connection with the championships.”
And Ackerman isn’t kidding when she says there’s room for creativity in shaping a path forward. She posits: what if there was a way to co-sell women’s college basketball with the WNBA?
“It could be an interesting opportunity here to bundle,” Ackerman said. “There’s no overlap [in their seasons]. I think it would be an interesting conversation to see if someone could own ‘women’s basketball.’”
UConn women’s tip times finalized
The Huskies finalized some more tip times for their 2021-22 schedule.
UConn at Oregon will be played at 5 p.m. on Jan. 17 and broadcast on ESPN2. The Huskies will also play at St. John’s on Jan. 23 at 1 p.m., at Providence on Jan. 30 at 11 a.m. (at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center), versus Georgetown on Feb. 20 at 2 p.m., and vs. Providence on Feb. 27 (Senior Day) at 2 p.m.
Alexa Philippou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org