Mar 24, 2023
Women's March Madness Shows 'World Is Catching Up'
(Bloomberg) -- For decades, the NCAA only used “March Madness” as a catchy marketing slogan for the men’s portion of its college basketball championships. In a sign of progress, the women’s tourney now gets that same branding.
“The world is catching up,” said Val Ackerman, commissioner of the Big East Conference and founding president of the WNBA.
Allowing the women’s tournament under the March Madness umbrella came last year, but only after the NCAA was criticized for the poor quality of facilities for female athletes during the 2021 tournament, which took place in the so-called bubble that instituted Covid-19 social-distancing measures.
The shift by the NCAA is part of a broader movement by women to receive equal compensation and treatment in the sports world. In another high-profile example, the US women’s national soccer team lobbied for and won pay parity with the men’s team.
“We're seeing women beginning to make their presence felt in the sports world,” said Ackerman, who also starred for the University of Virginia women’s basketball team and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. And “not only as athletes, but as coaches, athletic directors, commissioners and heads of pro leagues.”
Another factor helping women make the case that they deserve equal treatment is the boom in sponsorship agreements for an athlete’s name, image and likeness, according to Thilo Kunkel, director of the sports industry research center at Temple University. These NIL deals, which began in 2021 after the US Supreme Court struck down rules that prohibited them, put money directly in the pockets of athletes.
Female athletes can attract more followers, post more often and have better engagement, according to Kunkel’s research. Women’s basketball players trail only football and men’s basketball in NIL compensation, according to the Opendorse marketing platform.
But there is still a lot of frustration over the disparities. Even after a report in 2021 highlighted inequality and the NCAA made changes, including giving women the same tournament perks and gifts, the women’s championship remains in the shadow of the men’s tourney.
The media rights for the men’s games sold for billions to CBS and Turner. Meanwhile, the women’s rights were bundled with more than 20 other college sports championships and went for mere millions to ESPN.
Despite the giant gap in media rights, women’s sports are gaining ground in team valuations, according to Peter Giorgio, global sports practice leader at Deloitte. A debt deal recently valued the WNBA’s Seattle Storm at $151 million. Meanwhile, the price for a franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League has risen to record levels, he said.
That’s still a fraction of what pro teams fetch, including the NBA’s Phoenix Suns recently selling for $4 billion. But the better investment might be in women’s sports because their team values are rising faster.
On the men’s side, even if the value of teams “double in the next few years,” they could “double, triple or quadruple” for women’s franchises, Giorgio said.
What’s helping drive those valuations is women continuing to gain influence across teams and leagues. At the Big East, Ackerman has built a conference where the women’s basketball teams — including perennial powerhouse the University of Connecticut — regularly command more attention than their male counterparts.
“I just hope that the momentum we’ve begun to see continues and builds in the years to come,” Ackerman said.
--With assistance from Carly Wanna.
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