Jan 21, 2024; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes forward Cotie McMahon (32) reacts during the NCAA women’s basketball game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Value City Arena. Ohio State won 100-92.

Women’s college basketball has come a long way in recent years, and this progress has been marked by increased investment in the sport. To kick off the new year, the NCAA announced an eight-year, $920 million agreement with ESPN that will give the network exclusive rights to 40 NCAA championships, including the D1 women’s basketball championship that makes up roughly 57% of the deal for a total of $65 million. That’s an average of $115 million a year for the media package–a 300% increase from the NCAA’s previous 14-year bundle.

These numbers look impressive on paper. But do they do justice to the value of these sports–women’s basketball in particular?

If anything, the new deal is a far cry from the NCAA’s mishandling of women’s sports in the past, including inequities in the Women’s College World Series and the disastrous 2021 national women’s basketball tournament, when it took activism and outrage to draw attention to historic inequities between men’s and women’s basketball under the NCAA’s structure. Two women in particular, Stanford conditioning coach Ali Kershner and then-Oregon basketball player, Sedona Prince, will go down in history as change-makers who saw disparities in treatment and spoke up about it through Instagram and Tik Tok respectively. The public backlash was swift and severe–so much so that upon seeing the discrepancies between men’s and women’s “weight rooms” (a generous way to put it–the women were given a rack of dumbbells and a stack of yoga mats), swag bags, and branding efforts, Dick’s Sporting Goods stepped up and donated equipment for the women to use throughout the duration of the tournament.

Fittingly, Ali Kershner’s Stanford team won the championship that year. 

After the championship, the NCAA announced that it would launch an external gender equity review, to be carried out by Kaplan Hecker and Fink, LLP, which is “one of the most formidable, elite litigation boutiques in the country, fusing high-stakes litigation with a groundbreaking public interest practice.” The final review was fairly damning. Not only did the Kaplan report reveal that there “have been significant—and longstanding—disparities in the production and operation of the [basketball] championships” between men and women under the NCAA, but “there are underlying, systemic gender equity issues at the NCAA which must be remediated if the goal of equitable treatment of student-athletes is to be achieved.”

Possibly the most obvious first step of the Kaplan report was to extend rights to the “March Madness” trademark to the women’s tournament–until 2022, it was exclusively reserved for the men’s tournament

However, the NCAA ignored other key recommendations within the report with its latest media agreement. Although the new deal will help with exposure, revenue, and marketing, it also shortchanges the Kaplan report’s estimated value of the women’s tournament by over $15 million on the low end. Sure, it’s an improvement–in the previous package, the women’s basketball championship was part of another package that included 29 championships broadcast on ESPN, and the package as a whole was valued at $34 million total. But the Kaplan report suggests that the actual valuation for the women’s March Madness tournament alone “is worth much more—between $81 and $112 million annually in 2025.” In other words, the newest contact could be undervaluing the women’s tournament by nearly $50 million annually. And that’s without considering the exponential gains that have been made in the women’s sports industry since the report’s publication in 2021. Deloitte, for example, adjusted its 2020 projections for women’ sports global revenue in 2023 to over $1 billion –a 300% increase from not even four years ago. 

The Kaplan report took scope of the landscape. It noted that “the ESPN Multi-Media Agreement—now two decades since it was last put to bid—does not accurately reflect the value of women’s basketball in today’s market or sports media landscape, which has changed in important and significant ways since 2001.” The 2024 version is certainly expanded but follows a similar structure to the deal that was critiqued by Kaplan: lump women’s basketball into a package with dozens of other sports.

“In the end, you’ve got to find the deal that matches your goals and objectives and not unbundle because everybody’s saying to you: ‘Unbundle! Unbundle! Hey, it’s the cool thing to do!’” Hilary Mandel, Executive VP of Endeavor’s IMG, an entertainment company that helped negotiate the contract, told The Athletic. “Let’s just not get lost in the sauce of that conversation.”

However, some of the most influential names in women’s college basketball, like South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, have been arguing for standalone deals for years.

“It should happen,” Staley said of a standalone media deal for the women’s tournament. “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. It’s slowly building up to that because there’s proof in the numbers.”

Staley’s sentiments are directly reported by the Kaplan Report. Under its section on Maximizing Value Through Gender Equity in Marketing, Promotion, and Sponsorships, the first recommendation is to “market the rights to the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship as a stand-alone property.” It’s not that the minds behind the report are against packaging championships altogether. In fact, the Desser Media & Sponsorship Addendum, a separate, but related report carried out by sports media professionals Ed Desser, John Kosner, and Neil McDonald, recommends that the Men’s and Women’s College World Series be sold as a package deal. In doing so, they argue that it’s a win-win for women’s basketball and other Olympic sports that get drowned out in college football and men’s basketball media coverage because “the NCAA would likely attract multiple media entities, in addition to ESPN, to bid to telecast the events…We believe these packages will collectively generate far more total value for each Championship than the present approach.”

Bundling isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. But the addendum specifically notes that in order for the NCAA to access the full value of the women’s basketball tournament under their hypothetical ideal media rights deal, they must “break out and bid parts of the Other Championships package separately in future rights negotiations – starting with the [women’s basketball championship].” The present approach at the time of the addendum’s publication looks very similar to the media deal the NCAA just signed and contradicts the advice the NCAA solicited in 2021 to help fix the inequities that, according to the Kaplan report directly contradict the NCAA’s “stated commitment to ‘diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators’” and “stem from the structure and systems of the NCAA itself.”

In other words, gender inequity is a feature, not a bug, of the NCAA’s system. The new media deal proves that external reviews will only do so much to remedy these problems if internal actors ignore the research involved in producing their remedies.

There are other aspects of the 2021 external review that the NCAA has failed to acknowledge over the years. For example, the recommendation that the men’s and women’s Final Fours be held in the same city for increased promotion on both sides won’t happen in 2024 with the men’s semifinals being held in Phoenix and the women’s in Cleveland. In fact, according to the NCAA’s respective postseason schedules, the earliest the men’s and women’s Final Fours could potentially merge is 2031, if the NCAA decides to also host the men’s tournament in Dallas, where the women will compete (the men’s 2031 site is not yet listed). And although the report recommended moving the women’s Sunday championship game to a primetime slot around 8:00 or 9:00 PM ET, this year’s final will tip off at 3:00 PM ET, a problem that has plagued other women’s championships like softball and volleyball in recent years. 

The latest media deal in women’s college basketball is an improvement from decades prior, but its $65 million valuation of the championship, which has drawn millions of viewers since 1995, pales in comparison to its full monetary potential. If projections hold true, the women’s college basketball championship will continue smashing records in 2024 and beyond–so what will it take for the NCAA to treat women’s basketball like the business opportunity it is rather than an obligation?

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.