The 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament will be remembered for two things: incredibly entertaining games and embarrassingly unequal treatment shown to the athletes compared to their male peers. Both narratives are, in their own way, stories about money: The first shows the economic potential of women’s basketball, while the second points towards the chronic lack of investment in the sport.
And while the NCAA has been roundly and rightfully harangued regarding its repeated devaluations of the women’s game, it also has an opportunity here, one that could realize the promise of women’s basketball and improve its own embarrassing tournament efforts with one move: Combine the women’s and men’s tournaments into one giant basketball extravaganza.
1. They can sell the combined broadcast rights for big money
In 2018, ESPN extended their deal with the NCAA, paying a reported $500 million for worldwide rights to air 24 college championships through 2023-24. The women’s tournament was included in that bundle, as were international rights to the men’s tournament. But CBS Sports and Turner had already acquired the domestic broadcast for the men’s bracket, at a price of over a billion dollars a year, in a deal running through 2032.
Based on the ratings for the women’s tournament this year, the NCAA’s pretty clearly being way underpaid. (Hey, they really do know what the players are feeling!) They’d probably also be happy for any excuse to extract even more money out of the men’s tournament. So why not combine the rights into one gigantic package, one that makes each tourney more valuable?
There’s precedent here with the professional tennis majors. ESPN bought twelve years of U.S. rights to Wimbledon for $500 million in 2011; two years later, they paid $825 million for eleven years of US Open broadcast exclusivity. Networks don’t bid on just the men’s or women’s portions of these tournaments. They pay for all of it, and that in turn gives them a lot of incentive to promote and market the sport as a whole.
2. This makes it easier to eliminate the disparities
It’s not the only way to make sure men’s and women’s teams aren’t receiving drastically different food, lodging, training facilities, and so forth. But holding both tournaments together, with men’s and women’s teams playing in the same locations throughout, is one of the easier ways to ensure greater equity.
That may seem like a serious logistical challenge. It’s literally doubling the size of the event. The women’s tournament has traditionally relied on top teams hosting the first two rounds on their own campuses. And the present television schedule depends on the men and women playing on different days, not overlapping.
Here is my counterpoint: The NCAA just figured out how to cram a couple of 64-team tournaments that normally sprawl over multiple sites across the country into one city each because they wanted the money. I’m sure they can figure it out.
3. Fans get more opportunities to cross between the two sports
One of the joys of attending the early rounds of the tennis majors is the opportunity to see a variety of matches. You’re paying for access to certain facilities at certain times, not to specific pairings. College basketball does the same thing by selling tickets to the earlier rounds in session bundles, which is why you’ll often see sections of fans of a team that just played (or has yet to) in the stands. That, or they’ll be outside hurriedly trying to scalp the other half of their session tickets at a discount.
Put the men’s and women’s tournaments together, and now those session tickets get you access to games from both brackets. This kind of promotion-via-association isn’t unprecedented in college basketball; when I attended Florida, the men’s Midnight Madness opening event was preceded by a women’s volleyball game, and people who wanted to see the former would often come early to watch the latter. That kind of in-person experience is a great way to expand interest for both groups.
And the combination even helps fans who aren’t planning to go to the games. Got a media entity with an ever-shrinking travel budget? Good news: You now only have to worry about one megaevent, not two!
This combination tournament just saved sports journalism and made the NCAA some extra money. Please let me know when and where I’ll be receiving my medal.