NEW YORK — The NCAA has fallen short of upholding its commitment to gender equity by prioritizing its cash cow Division I men’s basketball tournament “over everything else,” according a scathing review released Tuesday of how the association conducts its championship events.
A law firm hired by the NCAA to investigate gender equity issues released a blistering report that recommended hold the men’s and women’s Final Fours at the same site and offering financial incentives to schools to improve their women’s basketball programs as ways to address the association’s shortcomings.
The review by Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP had been highly anticipated. The firm was hired in March after the NCAA failed to provide similar amenities to the teams in the men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments, a situation that blew up on social media amid player complaints and prompted apologies from NCAA executives including President Mark Emmert.
“With respect to women’s basketball, the NCAA has not lived up to its stated commitment to ‘diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators,’” the 113-page report concludes.
In a statement, the NCAA Board of Governors said it is “wholly committed to an equitable experience among its championships” and called on Emmert to take urgent action.
The report noted disparities were not confined to this year’s tournaments and that the bedrock financial deal for the NCAA and its member schools is partly to blame: Kaplan said NCAA’s structure and systems “are designed to maximize the value of and support to the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship as the primary source of funding for the NCAA and its membership.”
NCAA revenues surpassed $1 billion in the year before the pandemic and almost $900 million of that was tied to the media rights deal with CBS and Turner for the men’s tournament.
The women’s tournament, meanwhile, is part of a package with more than two dozen other NCAA championships that ESPN owns and pays the NCAA about $34 million per year through 2023-24. But according to an assessment done for Kaplan by a team of sports media and marketing experts, the women’s tournament will be worth between $81 and $112 million annually beginning in 2025.
The report criticized the NCAA for failing to recognize or prepare for that growth in value and said revenue generated by the men’s tournament’s media deal leads to that event being prioritized “over everything else in ways that create, normalize and perpetuate gender inequities.”
“We urge the NCAA to revisit with its media partners all broadcast rights agreements that include women’s basketball — specifically its contract with ESPN — as soon as possible to ensure the NCAA, the conferences, and the member institutions are being fairly compensated for the product our sport puts on the floor,” Women’s Basketball Coaches Association executive director Danielle Donehew said in a statement.
ESPN, which has been credited by some for helping grow the game by airing the women’s tournament exclusively since 1985, said it was reviewing the report. Officials at CBS and Turner Sports did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
California women’s basketball coach Charmin Smith said the report brings to light disparities she has seen for years.
“Yes, it’s positive for sure,” Smith said. “I think the NCAA is being called out in a number of ways recently and the NCAA will have to pivot and adjust in order to avoid even more lawsuits. It’s gotten to the point where enough is enough.”
Kaplan said running the Final Fours at the same site would allow for better cross-promotion of the events and for sponsors to be active for each tournament. The report called it the “best available means to grow women’s basketball.”
Most of the revenue generated by the CBS/Turner deal is distributed back to member schools by the NCAA, a large portion in “units” earned by conferences based on the tournament performance by individual schools. A similar distribution is not done for the women’s tournament, but Kaplan suggested it could prompt schools to improve their women’s programs.
The NCAA has struggled on the topic of equity for the two marquee tournaments for years and suggestions have been made before to make improvements.
What happened this year forced the issue to the fore all over again.
Among other things, female players, coaches and staff criticized the NCAA for not initially providing a full weight training area for the women’s teams in San Antonio, noting the men’s teams did not have the same problem in and around Indianapolis. Both tournaments were held in single sites because of the pandemic.
Kaplan found the problems with the weight room and other disparities between the two events, such as COVID-19 testing protocols, meals, signage and outdoor recreation, stemmed mainly from a lack of staffing of the women’s tournament and coordination between organizers of the two events.
“The women’s basketball staff member responsible for credentials, game operations and approximately 30 other tasks had approximately eight men’s basketball counterparts with whom she was in theory supposed to coordinate,” the report said.
The review called for annual assessments by the NCAA for the next five years to track progress on gender equity.