SPOKANE, Wash. — No one here could escape the symbolism. March Madness logos seemed to be everywhere in this small city last week, on posters, stickers, towels, electronic billboards and in hotel lobbies. The madness had come to this and the three other cities hosting the final 16 teams in the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament.
Last year’s tournament had no such branding. Held entirely in bubbled-off venues in the San Antonio area, with some games in San Marcos and Austin, the 2021 tournament looked like the N.C.A.A.’s evil stepchild. While the men’s tournament reveled in coveted TV spots and received lavish attention, Sedona Prince shared the women’s paltry accommodations on her TikTok and Twitter accounts. Women play with all the skill and intrigue seen in the men’s game, but the N.C.A.A. gave Prince and her fellow competitors none of the pageantry.
Consider this women’s tournament a do over. In basketball terms, a makeup call.
The action in Spokane showcased the greatness on display in what is the first N.C.A.A. women’s tournament to feature 68 teams, like the men, and to use the March Madness branding. There was smooth excellence, typified by the defending champion, Stanford, which throttled Maryland, 72-66, on Friday with its intensity and the do-it-all skills of Haley Jones, an all-American forward. There was also grit, embodied by Ohio State, which might have pulled off a last-minute comeback win on Friday against Texas were it not for the Longhorns’ defense and the incandescence of the freshman point guard Rori Harmon.
Besides the signage, the women this year are supposed to be receiving everything the men do for their sweat, courage and skill. For the women, it meant better food and swag bags. “We got something new that I don’t think any of us have seen before: a hoodie pillow!” Maryland point guard Katie Benzan said last week.
That’s all fine and good. It’s also low-hanging fruit. Fifty years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that called for gender equity in educational programs receiving funding from the federal government, the N.C.A.A. was goaded into these simple changes after an internally ordered review blistered the organization for an old-school, male-centered approach.
The study, known as the Kaplan report, found that the N.C.A.A.’s all-out efforts to wring support and profit from its Division I men’s tournament had limited the growth and value of its women’s tournament. Its lack of support for the women meant the N.C.A.A. lost out on millions of dollars of TV revenue — while also angering and alienating fans.
The true test has yet to come. Simple changes can only go so far. In the wake of the outrage sparked by Prince’s video, the 2021 women’s championship game, a thrilling win by Stanford over Arizona, outdrew the average N.B.A. playoff game last season. This year, TV ratings rose drastically for women’s games. And the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament has continued the upward trend in popularity. The N.C.A.A. has an opportunity to produce a cash cow that powers the women’s game forward when it renegotiates its next basketball broadcast contract in 2024. Will it?
We’re at a precipice. A “barge through the door” moment. Women’s college basketball seems poised to rise as never before.
Take a step back from the big tournament. Guess who is taking the greatest advantage of their fast-growing social media popularity and the new college sports rules on endorsements?
“If you take football players out of the equation and look at how student-athletes are monetizing sponsors in this new world, women’s sports athletes are crushing the men,” said Blake Lawrence, chief executive of Opendorse, a tech company that has teamed with dozens of universities to help athletes navigate marketing opportunities.
As a whole, women’s basketball players receive the second-most endorsement money of any college athletes, according to Opendorse. They’re followed by — ahem, drum roll please — men’s basketball players.
And after them, the money list is filled with competitors from two more women’s sports: swimming and diving, and volleyball.
The biggest names at the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament have been reaping massive benefits. Paige Bueckers, a sophomore guard at Connecticut, is featured in Gatorade ads. Lawrence is confident she is earning over $1 million from her endorsements. A teammate of hers, the freshman Azzi Fudd, recently signed with Steph Curry’s management team.
After the two players starred in UConn’s 75-58 win over Indiana on Saturday, their 3-pointers showed up on highlight shows and social media, which is exactly why business brands consider them valuable.
“I would never have thought any of this would happen when I was recruited,” Stanford’s Jones said. She heralded the shift to a world few could imagine even last season, ticking off her corporate sponsors, which include Beats by Dre, NBA 2K, Coin Cloud and the Black-owned curly hair care line Uncle Funky’s Daughter. Jones noted that she was now represented by PRP, a talent agency in Las Vegas whose clients include Shaquille O’Neal and Jayson Tatum.
Welcome to the revolution.
“It’s pretty amazing to fly first class and be staying in the finest hotels,” Jones said, referring to her trips taken for corporate video shoots. “I’m used to flying coach and staying in the cheapest hotel possible.”
If you think players who are reaping these kinds of benefits will stand for more of the same old shabby treatment and inequality, think again. A new era of empowered female competitors, led by basketball players, will continue to demand change far beyond the easy hosannas of better swag, tastier food and all those signs proclaiming March Madness.
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