NCAA-Created WBIT Gives Women’s Hoops Another Postseason Option

The NCAA has faced criticism for years over its handling of postseason women’s basketball. As the sport’s attendance and viewership soar, the governing body launched another postseason tournament to address that inequity and possibly capitalize on that commercial growth, viewership and popularity ushered in by Iowa star Caitlin Clark and many others.

The formation of the Women’s Basketball Invitational Tournament (WBIT), which debuted earlier this month, is in response to the findings of the 2021 Gender Equity Report from Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP that found there were “sufficient and longstanding disparities” between the NCAA’s men’s and women’s basketball championships.

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On the men’s side, the NCAA operates the NIT, having purchased rights to it back in 2005. But while the long-standing WNIT offered 64 women’s teams left out of the NCAA Tournament a postseason option, the NCAA does not operate it—Triple Crown Sports does.

After the WBIT’s formation, the WNIT cut back its usual 64 teams to a 48-team bracket this year. While the two tournaments can make offers to the same teams, a majority of the WNIT field (up to 32 teams) comes via automatic berths, offered to the highest-finishing team in each conference that was not selected for either the NCAA Tournament or the WBIT.

“The initial reaction is, ‘Wow, this is a direct hit or impact to what we do and how we do it,’” Sarah Molina, basketball event director for Triple Crown Sports, said over the phone about the creation of another postseason tournament. “It’s a changing landscape where ultimately no matter who does what and how we do it, we can’t control that.”

Asked about the NCAA’s decision to create the WBIT, Meghan Durham Wright, associate director of communications at the NCAA, said that association members felt it was important to have the same number of men’s and women’s teams play for a title across two tournaments.

While the NCAA has been criticized in recent years for its treatment of the women’s NCAA Tournament compared to the men’s—leading to the 2021 equity report—Durham Wright doesn’t believe the governing body’s investment in the WBIT comes at the expense of the women’s NCAA Tournament, she said via email. She added that the NCAA invested $14 million per year when the women’s tournament expanded from 64 to 68 teams in 2022.

Denise Dillon, head coach of WBIT No. 1 seed Villanova, said she’s fine with the NCAA allocating money for a new tournament and noted “the NCAA is not taking a hit” for hosting because games are played on campus sites until the semifinals.

Participating schools in the WBIT are not paid, nor is there any prize money for the winner—and the same is true for the WNIT. However, there are some financial differences in terms of how the models are structured. The WBIT retains all ticket revenue and will reimburse host schools for all approved operation-related expenses.

“Currently, there are no distribution units for teams participating in the WBIT,” Wright wrote in an email. “NCAA members have prioritized first creating a women’s basketball performance fund distribution for the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship and are currently working through potential models for those units.”

Unlike the men’s NCAA Tournament, which sees the governing body distribute more than $220 million in units to conferences, the women’s NCAA Tournament does not currently feature any payouts, and ticket revenue from women’s tourney games held on campuses goes to the NCAA.

The NCAA’s total revenue in 2023 was $1.29 billion, and it earned the majority of its money from the men’s basketball tournament and the media rights deal for it. The men’s NIT generated $8.4 million in revenue for the association last year, according to its FY23 tax return.

Triple Crown Sports’ Molina said WNIT teams get to keep their net revenue from their ticket sales. Teams in the WNIT pay a game guarantee of $15,000 to host the first and second rounds ($5,000 for Round 1 and $10,000 for Round 2).

The hosts are not determined by seed because the WNIT does not seed teams like the WBIT and women’s NCAA Tournament does. The matchups are set by a committee who try to keep the region in mind and tries to not put two teams in the same conference against each other.

One hundred and seventy-six programs signed agreements to participate in the 2024 WBIT if they were selected, according to an NCAA source who was granted anonymity because the agreement details are private. A committee of five Division I women’s coaches and three former athletic administrators select the 32-team field, but as is the case with the WNIT, teams can choose to decline the invitation.

ESPN has full broadcast rights to show the WBIT. The network agreed to an eight-year, $920 million media rights deal with the NCAA in January which begins Sept. 1 and includes the WBIT.

The WNIT doesn’t have a TV deal; production costs of the championship game, which will air on CBS Sports, will be covered by Triple Crown Sports.

The WBIT semifinals and final will be played at Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind., on April 1 and 3 respectively.

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