Dawn Staley women's sports icon Mar 5, 2023; Greenville, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley shows the the net to the crowd after winning the SEC Championship at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last several years, the disparity between the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments has gotten a lot of attention. A common response has been “well, networks are paying so much money to air the men’s tournament and (some inaccurate, miniscule amount) to pay the women’s tournament, so that’s why,” but in reality, the women’s tournament has never been sold separately. It’s part of a bundle of all NCAA championships aside from from FBS football and men’s basketball. The women’s tournament is just one part of that package that sold for a total of $500 million to ESPN more than a decade ago.

That contract expires after the 2023-24 season, and calls have grown louder for the NCAA to break the women’s tournament away from the other championships and sell it separately. Estimates have put the value of the women’s tournament alone at more than the annual $40 million or so ESPN is paying for the full championship package, possibly as high as $112 million per season.

Last year, several coaches pushed the NCAA to give out “units” like in the men’s tournament, which would then go back to each conference. That hasn’t happened due to the women’s tournament’s inclusion in the championship bundle, and this year, top coaches are again advocating for the tournament to be sold separately and for schools to receive units.

Per ESPN, both South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and UCLA’s Cori Close are in favor of the tournament being sold as its own entity.

Staley believes the sport’s growth in recent years has made selling it alone a more feasible option.

“It should happen,” Staley said Friday, the day before her Gamecocks play UCLA in the Sweet 16. “We’re at that place where we’re in high demand. I do believe women’s basketball can stand on its own and be a huge revenue-producing sport that could do, to a certain extent, what men’s basketball has done for all those other sports, all those other Olympic sports and women’s basketball.

“I do believe we were probably at a place years ago, but until we’re able to have the decision-makers give us that opportunity … It’s slowly building up to that because there’s proof in the numbers.”

Close expressed optimism about the women’s tournament being sold separately, and also referred to the allocation of units.

In addition to wanting it’s tournament to be negotiated as a separate rights package, Close is in favor of a unit distribution model similar to what the men receive for participation in the NCAA tournament. Close, who also serves as WBCA president, said other coaches she has talked to are in favor of this model as well.

“I think it needs to happen hand in hand,” Close said. “It was one of the major parts of the Kaplan report a few years back. As a new media rights deal is worked on hopefully by the NCAA for a standalone deal with women’s basketball in that space, I think there needs to be a meaningful unit distribution associated with that.

“I don’t think any of us are asking for it to be just like the men. Obviously, they’re ahead of us in that deal. But I do think it’s the next right step.”

The comments by Close about the size of the rights deal make a lot of sense to me. I don’t think anyone is claiming the NCAA Women’s Tournament is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years, or $8.8 billion over eight years. But it’s definitely worth more being sold alone than as part of a package worth just $40 million per year, which seems like a hilarious value for ESPN so long after the rights deal was announced.

And frankly, the NCAA shouldn’t stop with the women’s basketball tournament. Break out the baseball tournament! Break out the softball tournament! While there’s a chance this will have an adverse effect on Olympic sports, it also doesn’t seem logical to attach more popular sports and events (like the women’s basketball tournament) to the less popular ones to prop them up and possibly deflate the rights fees brought in by the higher interest championships.


About Joe Lucia

I hate your favorite team. I also sort of hate most of my favorite teams.