What's changed since NCAA's inequity failings were exposed during last year's tournament?

The 2021 outcry over gender inequities in college basketball led to a scathing 118-page report that detailed the NCAA’s underinvestment in women’s hoops — and then, over subsequent months, to rebrands, expansion and a $5 million boost to the women’s tournament budget, sources briefed on NCAA plans told Yahoo Sports.

The 2022 tournament, which begins Wednesday, will feature 68 teams and March Madness logos for the first time. The NCAA announced those changes after a third-party review found that the organization’s “structure and systems … prioritize Division I men’s basketball over everything else in ways that create, normalize, and perpetuate gender inequities.”

The NCAA, in response, essentially stripped its March Madness budgets down to zero and rebuilt them from scratch. Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball, said in January multiple departments compiled 2,800 budget line items and identified 65 “gap areas” between the women’s and men’s tournaments. Those differences included hotel decor, “swag bags” and gameday experiences.

According to an NCAA spokeswoman, “more than 50” gaps have since been closed “with new funding. At least a dozen others were addressed with non-monetary changes.”

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With a beefed-up women’s staff and increased cross-promotion, the 2022 men’s and women’s tournaments will be the most equitable in their history. Coaches who’ve sought that progress, often unsuccessfully in the past, are “thrilled, thankful, elated for some of the changes that have taken place,” UCLA’s Cori Close, the president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and current Bruins women's head coach, told Yahoo Sports.

Interviews with stakeholders revealed a relatively broad consensus that those changes are significant and will “increase the level of student-athlete experience,” as Close said.

But they were also “low-hanging fruits,” “way overdue” and “still don't change some of the systems that are holding back the growth of women's basketball,” Close said.

“I'm not even close to satisfied,” she continued.

The report, produced by the law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink, included several core recommendations related to systemic issues that, seven months later, remain unaddressed.

“We've been fighting these same battles for so long,” Muffet McGraw, the former Notre Dame women's head coach and longtime equity advocate, told Yahoo Sports. “And we're not gonna be happy with little changes. We need big change.”

The South Carolina Gamecocks and the Stanford Cardinal during tip off of the 2021 NCAA women's Final Four on April 2, 2021, at Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. (Ben Solomon via Getty Images)
The South Carolina Gamecocks and the Stanford Cardinal during tip off of the 2021 NCAA women's Final Four on April 2, 2021, at Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. (Ben Solomon via Getty Images)

Dispelling the 'money loser' belief for women's tournament

The Kaplan report reflected interviews with hundreds of college administrators, coaches, athletes and NCAA executives, and reviews of more than 4,000 NCAA documents. It exposed a disjointed organization structured around a single contract: The eight-year, $8.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner for men’s tournament TV rights, broader corporate sponsorship rights and more.

The contract essentially justified outsized spending on the men’s tournament and relative neglect of the women’s event. The men’s staff was twice as big. The vice president of women’s basketball, Lynn Holzman, reported to Gavitt, who runs men’s hoops. Kaplan investigators found that the NCAA spent $53.2 million on the 2019 men’s tournament, compared to $17.9 million on the women’s. The many disparities, the report stated, “limit[ed] the growth of women’s basketball.”

The lack of investment, the firm continued, “perpetuat[ed] a mistaken narrative that women’s basketball is destined to be a ‘money loser’ year after year.”

Last March, the NCAA claimed the women’s tournament “lost $2.8 million” in 2019, and said it was “the largest loss of any NCAA championship.” But it had valued the broadcast rights, sold to ESPN as part of a bundle, at roughly $6 million per year. An independent analysis commissioned by Kaplan found its true value would soon be upward of $80 million annually, with room for further growth.

The report spelled out recommendations for realizing that potential. It said the NCAA should:

  • Change its organizational structure to promote equity and coordination between women’s and men’s basketball.

  • Sell women’s basketball media rights and sponsorships as standalone properties, like it does men’s basketball rights.

  • Distribute revenue in part based on women’s basketball performance, rather than tying its largest chunk of revenue solely to men’s basketball performance.

  • Allow women’s basketball to use the “March Madness” brand, rather than withhold it, as the NCAA had done for years.

  • Hold the women’s and men’s Final Fours in the same city.

  • Rebuild budgets from a “zero base,” rather than from the previous year’s baseline, “to ensure that any gender differences are necessary, appropriate, and equitable.” Where they aren’t, correct the disparities.

What's changed since last year?

Almost immediately after the report was presented in early August, the NCAA established a “gender equity steering committee” to lead an internal review. Its men’s and women’s basketball and oversight committees began meeting and collaborating more regularly. In early November, it began the “zero-based” budgeting process.

The Kaplan report had revealed stark and unnecessary inequities. The NCAA had, for example, spent $125.55 per player on an initial round of gifts and mementos at the 2021 men's tournament, and $60.42 per player at the women's tournament. It spent more than $70,000 on personal hygiene kits distributed to men's teams, but not to the women. It spent multiples more on things like airport signage, street pole banners, team bus decor and locker room furnishings. It spent on things like concerts, lounges and other luxuries that the women never got.

At NCAA headquarters, a group led by chief financial officer Kathleen McNeely set out to right these wrongs. Everything was thrown in a 60-column spreadsheet, Gavitt said. And over the past few months, officials have undone most of the needless disparities.

Some changes are noticeable. The women’s tournament now features 68 teams and a “First Four” like the men’s. The NCAA’s primary basketball Twitter handles are now @MarchMadnessMBB and @MarchMadnessWBB. The Final Four logos now include “men’s” and “women’s,” unlike in years past, when the lack of a gender identifier at the men’s tournament implicitly indicated that “men’s” was the default.

Other changes will impact experiences behind the scenes. At the women’s tournament, various NCAA officials have said, there will be increased signage, four times as many player lounges and Final Four festivities open to the public on the Saturday between the semifinals and final. There will be enhanced team intros and in-arena video boards and news conference transcripts after every game, as there have been for years on the men’s side. Awards and gifts will be on par with the men’s, as well. Inequality in referee pay will be rectified.

Gavitt has said the budget will increase by multiple millions. In an interview last week, he declined to provide an exact number, in part because finalized numbers don’t yet exist. But two members of the NCAA’s women’s basketball oversight committee told Yahoo Sports the NCAA has floated the $5 million figure. (It’s unclear how that compares to increases or decreases in the men’s budget.)

The NCAA announced last month it will not combine the Final Fours until at least 2032, but that was the most polarizing of the Kaplan recommendations. Coaches, for the most part, are pleased with the NCAA’s initial response. They expect players will be as well.

“We're hoping that that equality that we were fighting for last year is there from the beginning as soon as we arrive,” Oregon’s Sedona Prince, who helped expose the inequities, told Yahoo Sports in a recent interview.

But, as Close said, coaches aren’t satisfied.

“There are some real structural things that are still in place that are holding back the growth of our sport,” she said.

The big financial hurdle stopping progress

The tallest uncleared “hurdle,” as some coaches call it, is the NCAA’s revenue distribution scheme, which in 2019 awarded $168.5 million to conferences and schools based on their performance in the men’s basketball tournament and $0 for success in the women’s tournament.

This “basketball performance fund,” which is more accurately a men’s basketball performance fund, “prioritizes and rewards investment in men’s basketball” but not women’s basketball, the Kaplan report explained. For universities and their athletic departments, it skews incentives.

“ADs are trying to balance their budgets, too,” North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart told Yahoo Sports. “It's not like there's an endless flow of money, and you can just pick and choose which [sport] your favorite is. When they get more money when men's basketball wins, they have to care more how men's basketball does.”

Banghart and others, speaking not about their own schools but generally, said the incentives affect everything from recruiting budgets to coaches’ salaries — which are, on average, far higher on the men’s side.

“It's systemic, and it encourages a certain behavior that inhibits the growth of women,” Close said.

If the incentives were adjusted, and women’s basketball postseason wins were also rewarded, “that would really help,” Banghart said. “Unless there's a payout for success, you don't reach your potential.”

A decision on the revenue distribution model rests with NCAA committees, which comprise administrators at various Division I schools and conferences. An NCAA spokeswoman told Yahoo Sports that “NCAA members are actively engaged in this discussion,” and the concept “currently rests with the Division I Strategic Vision and Planning Committee.” The process, though, could be complicated by broader structural changes within the NCAA.

Two sources familiar with discussions indicated some administrators at institutions who often benefit from the men’s-based fund have resisted revisions that would reallocate some of the incentives to women’s basketball. But both sources explained that a women’s fund doesn’t necessarily have to pull from the men’s fund. The Kaplan report, Close and others have proposed a gradual reallocation, but another possibility is that the next women’s basketball TV contract, which will begin in 2024, could create a new pool of money from which a women’s basketball performance fund could flow.

That contract is the other key issue that stakeholders pinpoint. It hasn’t yet been negotiated. In the past, women’s basketball rights were bundled with dozens of other NCAA championships. Coaches and other stakeholders now hope they’ll be sold separately. A team of industry experts estimated that if they are, they could fetch $909 million over eight years or $1.2 billion over 10. Such a deal would represent a roughly twentyfold increase in the broadcast revenue attributed by the NCAA to women’s basketball.

Similar value could also be realized as part of a package. But many in and around the sport want it to stand alone.

“If you're really committed to [gender equity], then this is a no-brainer,” Close said. “I think it would be a travesty, and I think it would show a real disingenuous desire to truly achieve gender equity, if it didn't happen.”

Gavitt said there “hasn’t been a final decision” made on bundle vs. standalone, but that “internal planning” had already started. He said NCAA leaders “absolutely understand what the [Kaplan] recommendations were,” and both options are being “seriously considered.” He said the NCAA engaged consultants, “and we'll likely engage more” after this year’s tournaments. The negotiations, he said, are “absolutely on the radar.”

In the meantime, there are other concerns that remain unaddressed. Holzman still reports to Gavitt, and Gavitt directly to NCAA president Mark Emmert, an NCAA spokeswoman confirmed. Members of the women’s basketball oversight committee exchanged skeptical emails last week after Emmert distributed a letter to NCAA membership detailing staff changes and didn’t mention women’s basketball, a source said.

But the TV deal, and the potential incentives tied to the money it brings in, will be the primary driver of progress over the next decade. They could be transformative.

“It will be a game-changer for our sport,” one prominent stakeholder said. “It will be enormous for our sport if those two things get done well. It'll be huge for us.”