The Big Ten wants to tackle decades of gender inequality in the NCAA. Will it work?

·8 min read

Kevin Warren introduced Michigan women’s basketball head coach Kim Barnes Arico to lead off the Big Ten’s basketball media days on Thursday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

It’s a purposeful choice by the Big Ten commissioner in his first in-person basketball media day since beginning in January of 2020. Just as it was purposeful he make his first appearance as commissioner that month at a women’s basketball game. They both put into action one of the cornerstone priorities he has for his tenure: elevating women’s sports and treating them equally to the men’s programs.

That’s why Warren insisted on these combined media days that alternate between men’s and women’s programs rather than split them, and fans' attention, as had been done in the past.

“I have this vision that our women’s coaches and men’s coaches deserve an opportunity and a platform to hear their voices, their stories, their programs, to have those amplified [equally],” Warren told Yahoo Sports on a Zoom call earlier this week.

It’s only the beginning of his plans as the sport and NCAA reckons with the fallout of its long-held inequities put on blast at the 2021 women’s basketball championship. The Big Ten is in the process of hiring a vice president of women’s basketball who will report directly to the conference’s new chief sports officer, Warren told Yahoo Sports exclusively.

“This hire will be one of the most important hires that I'll make in my tenure as commissioner of the Big Ten Conference,” he said. “This is a critical component.”

And the conference established the Lisa Byington Award for the glass-shattering play-by-play announcer to honor the past and future of women in sport.

Seeing problems as opportunities

Kevin Warren
The first championship trophy Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren gave out was to the Maryland women's basketball team, including guard Ashley Owusu, in March 2020. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Warren went into his tenure heeding the advice of well-respected peers.

“Don’t go into it saying, ‘Well, here is how they did it before so let’s just keep doing it,’” Warren told Yahoo Sports. “But also don’t go into it from a judgmental standpoint.”

The 2021 NCAA women’s basketball national championship was the first for Warren after sports shut down 70 days into his tenure as the commissioner. And by the time he arrived in San Antonio, the weight room inequalities had already become the headline.

“I didn’t go down there to say, boy look at that problem, look at that problem,” he said. “I went down there and said look at these opportunities. And I start with the product and with the talent.”

Warren knows plenty about those two aspects as seven Big Ten teams were in the 2021 tournament and the conference features Iowa sophomore sensation Caitlin Clark. Her UConn counterpart Paige Bueckers, who Warren casually brought up in conversation only as her nickname Paige Buckets, went to high school 10 minutes from his family’s home in Minnesota. He credits growing up surrounded by “strong willed, confident” grandmothers, sisters and mother for setting the tone that equality should be standard.

One way to honor that is by establishing an award in the name of Lisa Byington, who has reached multiple firsts including becoming the Milwaukee Bucks play-by-play announcer last month. Byington played basketball and soccer at Northwestern and was speechless upon hearing of the award from Warren. It will be given annually to a female broadcaster on the Big Ten Network’s digital service who will be able to speak with Byington and receive mentoring at the network for a week.

Equal footing between men’s, women’s programs

Behind Warren in his Zoom-perfect office is a pile of leather-bound notebooks filled with items he’s identified as opportunities through all sports. One of those is creating a position devoted to women’s basketball the same way conferences devote a position to the men’s game.

“Why do we have a person who is focused on men’s basketball and not on women?” Warren asked. “[We need] someone who is a seasoned executive who is passionate about amplifying and creating a platform for women’s basketball. That’s critically important.”

Critical, but largely absent. The Big Ten is not alone in employing a senior executive with men’s basketball in the job title, but none for women’s basketball. Often, the women’s side is entry-level or embedded in another job and reports to the men’s director. And that has been part of the problem as the gender equity report on the 2021 NCAA tournament detailed. That separation is also a public indicator that the men’s game is viewed as inherently better.

“It’s not for show, but I think this clearly articulates how important this is to the Big Ten conference [and] me personally from a gender equity standpoint,” he said.

Warren told Yahoo Sports the position will be on equal footing to the vice president of men’s basketball and they will each report to Diana Sabau, hired in March as the conference’s first chief sports officer in its 125-year history. Sabau reports to Warren, but the commissioner said because amplification of the women’s game is a major priority to him he’ll be more heavily involved.

The position will focus on scheduling, health and wellness issues, coaching, officiating and TV scheduling on specifically the women’s side.

“I wanted to hire someone who from the time that this individual woke up in the morning to the time that they went to bed, that they were trying to figure out ways to activate, amplify [and] empower everything about women’s Big Ten basketball,” Warren said.

There are other opportunities Warren has identified on the women’s side that are listed in those notebooks, such as potentially hosting the conference championships in the same place at the same time. But he said before putting them into action he wants to discuss them with the new hire who is more directly involved in the topic as well as hearing from coaches.

“They need to know we hear them, we care, we understand,” he said, “and like I said, not in a judgmental way, but to make sure that this is a priority to us for the right reasons.”

Measuring success in different ways

Media days is the official tipoff to basketball coverage and in the past the Big Ten has held a men’s basketball event at a hotel with the women’s event a teleconference three weeks later. Even when they were held together it was in different groups; media members often left and online viewers tuned out when it was the women’s turn. Again, visibility and the lack thereof sets the tone for the rest of the year.

That’s why Thursday and Friday the athletes and coaches will all be treated to the same perks. Availability will alternate from men’s to women’s and back, forcing reporters and viewers on both linear TV and livestream on Twitter to pay attention to both.

It seems so small and like the bare minimum, but it needs to start somewhere and it’s a refreshing change from dismissals of the women’s game heard from other leaders. It’s factual that women’s basketball does not pull in the revenue of men’s basketball, but it’s also fact that it doesn’t have the same resources.

Organized women’s sports received such a late start to men’s and their success has to be measured in other ways. Warren said TV ratings, often used as an indicator of success, is not his focus.

“I want it be that when you ask our coaches and our student athletes if they actually feel a major difference that unequivocally they will be able to articulate how it is different than it had been,” Warren said. “Because I can sit here and say it’s great. The best thing to do is ask the people who it impacts the most. Go to our coaches, go to our student athletes.”

As for the NCAA, which last week said it will use “March Madness” for the women’s game but wasn’t sure how, there is only so much one commissioner can do in the bigger picture. The one thing he can do and he said he intended when stepping into the role is “make sure that our conference is in order.”

“I think the biggest thing I can do,” Warren said. “is make sure that we at the Big Ten conference are doing everything that we possibly can to support, empower and amplify all of our sports, our women’s sports and especially women’s basketball. And just to take a leadership role in that area.”