SportsReport: N.C.A.A. Prioritized Men’s Basketball ‘Over Everything Else’

Report: N.C.A.A. Prioritized Men’s Basketball ‘Over Everything Else’

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The N.C.A.A.’s financial dependence on its Division I men’s basketball tournament has long fueled gender inequity in college sports, investigators said in a report on Tuesday, when they challenged the association to overhaul its approach to two of the most celebrated events in American athletics.

“The N.C.A.A.’s broadcast agreements, corporate sponsorship contracts, distribution of revenue, organizational structure and culture all prioritize Division I men’s basketball over everything else in ways that create, normalize and perpetuate gender inequities,” the report, which exceeded 100 pages, said. “At the same time, the N.C.A.A. does not have structures or systems in place to identify, prevent or address those inequities.”

The review, prepared by the civil rights litigator Roberta A. Kaplan and her law firm, also suggested that the N.C.A.A. was earning far less than it should for television rights to the women’s basketball tournament. An analysis, conducted as a part of the review, predicted that the contract to broadcast the women’s basketball tournament would be worth at least $85 million a year in 2025. Under a contract that last went to market 20 years ago and has not been “materially renegotiated” since its renewal a decade ago, the N.C.A.A. currently values the television rights for the women’s tournament at less than $6 million a year.

Tuesday’s report was a footnoted, detailed and widely anticipated reckoning for the N.C.A.A., which has spent years extolling its commitment to women’s athletics. But the report detailed one slight after another, and, more crucially for the future of the association, how the contracts that make the N.C.A.A. a financial force contributed to a pattern of inequities.

“I don’t think you can sweep this under the rug,” Tara VanDerveer, who coached Stanford’s women’s team to a national championship this year, said in an interview on Tuesday.

“I don’t think you can say this is a one-off,” she added as she praised the report’s scope. “I think we’ve hit kind of a tipping point.”

The association’s board, which received a briefing about the inquiry on Tuesday afternoon, said in a statement that the report “provides useful guidance to improve our championships” and that it had directed the N.C.A.A. president, Mark Emmert, “to act urgently to address any organizational issues.”

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The N.C.A.A., which had already faced years of calls for changes in women’s basketball, commissioned the inquiry in March, when it faced an uproar over disparities between this year’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Players at the men’s tournament, the 67-game competition that is the N.C.A.A.’s financial lifeblood thanks to a television contract worth more than $850 million this year, arrived in Indiana to find well-supplied facilities and the full marketing might of the March Madness brand.

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But in Texas, where the association held this year’s women’s tournament, players initially had lightly stocked workout areas and competition venues so underwhelming that a top coach suggested they resembled sites for high school games.

The resulting furor led to pointed accusations against the N.C.A.A. — namely that it favored the men’s tournament with so many resources that it helped starve the women’s game of a starring role in the national discourse — which sometimes overshadowed one of the most glorious stretches of any year for college athletics.

The association’s decision to hire Kaplan came only after Emmert played down the concerns that players and coaches had aired in interviews and on social media. The complaints soon became a crisis for the association, and Emmert, who received a contract extension while the review was underway, pledged at the time that the N.C.A.A. would “aggressively address material and impactful differences” between the basketball competitions. Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in nearly every educational setting, does not apply to the N.C.A.A.

Even as it noted “deep distrust in the N.C.A.A.’s willingness and ability” to make crucial changes, the Kaplan report offered more than two dozen recommendations, including staging the men’s and women’s Final Fours in the same city; reworking the N.C.A.A. organizational chart for oversight of basketball; and essentially rebooting the budgeting process for the tournaments.

The association acknowledged in March that it had budgeted nearly double for its men’s basketball tournament in 2019 compared to what it planned for its women’s competition. N.C.A.A. executives insisted that the $13.5 million gap could be attributed to substantial variations in the formats and popularity of the tournaments.

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In reality, according to the report, the N.C.A.A. had a gap in spending of about $35 million. The report acknowledged that “gender equity does not require equal budgets,” but it said that the perception that men’s basketball is “highly profitable and therefore worthy of increased investment has cultivated a culture within the N.C.A.A. in which men’s basketball is not required to abide by many of the same budgetary constraints as women’s basketball.”

For the 2021 tournaments, which strayed from their traditional formats because of the coronavirus pandemic, investigators found that N.C.A.A. executives felt that the men’s tournament was a priority for the organization’s survival after it had to cancel the competitions in 2020 and spiraled into a financial emergency. The “fundamental difference in perspective about the relative importance of the 2021 men’s and women’s championships led to gender disparities from the very outset of the planning process,” investigators wrote.

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Organizers of the men’s tournament, for example, were allowed to announce their plans to proceed with the competition on Nov. 16, 2020, investigators said. But executives balked at allowing organizers of the women’s tournament to make a similarly timed announcement because they would first have to review the financial costs of holding the competition.

The men’s tournament, the report said, faced no such scrutiny.

Once the men arrived in Indiana and the women in Texas for their tournaments, investigators said, they had vastly different experiences. Food quality varied drastically, as did lounges for players and gift bags provided to participants. (The N.C.A.A. spent $125.55 per player in the first and second rounds of the men’s tournament on gifts; the association spent $60.42 per player in the early rounds at the women’s tournament.)

And investigators found that tournament organizers devoted far more resources to promoting the 2021 men’s tournament.

But the problems that trailed the women’s tournament were often years in the making, Kaplan’s team found. The N.C.A.A.’s system of distributing revenues, for instance, relies heavily on performance in the men’s tournament, but it does not consider performance in the women’s championship, effectively offering fewer incentives for universities to invest in their women’s basketball programs.

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And the N.C.A.A. earns money from a corporate sponsorship arrangement that produces substantial revenue for men’s basketball in Division I. The system, the investigators wrote, requires a prospective sponsor to agree to support all N.C.A.A. championship events, closing off opportunities to companies with smaller marketing budgets.

“There is no space for sponsors who might be interested in sponsoring women’s basketball but who do not want or cannot afford to buy the required advertising time to support men’s basketball,” the report said. The media rights structure, they added, “contributes to the narrative that women’s basketball is a supposed money loser and that men’s basketball needs to be prioritized so that it can maximize revenue for the benefit of all N.C.A.A. sports.”

The existing television agreement for the women’s tournament, the report also found, has been a substantial hindrance for women’s basketball. In an 88-page addendum to the report, a sports media firm estimated that the women’s tournament alone could be worth more than $100 million a year beginning in 2025, when the current deal expires.

The N.C.A.A. said in March that a third-party consultancy it had hired had allocated 15.9 percent of the existing contract’s value to the women’s basketball tournament. That deal, which also covers many other N.C.A.A. championship events, is worth $500 million over 14 years.

In the meantime, the firm said, the N.C.A.A. and media partners like CBS, Turner and ESPN could take steps that would “protect the premium value” of the men’s tournament while aiding the “continued development” of the women’s competition. Those options, the report said, include using the “March Madness” brand for both tournaments.

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“We’ve been in the unfertile field,” VanDerveer said. “The men’s tournament has been plowed and fertilized, and we’ve been like, throw the seeds over there and see what grows. With vision and support from universities and great leadership, the women’s tournament can be so much better. I’m very hopeful.”

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