March 19, 2021
Column: You’re gonna carry that weight
The disparities between the men's and women's tournaments must change
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Stop what you’re doing and watch this video.
Thanks to the virality of social media, by now you’ve likely heard of the inequities between the men’s NCAA Tournament bubble in Indianapolis and the women’s bubble in San Antonio.
This video, along with photos of the contrasting weight rooms, provided meals and swag bags, spread like wildfire across the internet yesterday. WNBA and NBA players like Sue Bird, A’ja Wilson, Sabrina Ionescu, Alysha Clark, Steph Curry, Dwayne Wade, CJ McCollum, Ja Morant and many, many more voiced their disappointment in the disparities between the NCAA bubbles.
Now, you may be thinking: cut them some slack, this is an unprecedented year and we should be happy there’s a tournament at all.
We are happy there’s a tournament at all. I’m sure players, coaches, staff, fans and media throughout all of basketball are thrilled to have March Madness this year after missing out on it in 2020.
But it was an unprecedented year for both the men and the women. And if the NCAA on both sides really did collaborate to put together these separate but “equal” bubble tournaments this year, why do they look so different?
“I think some of it may be a result of working remotely,” said Dan Gavitt, Senior Vice President of Basketball at the NCAA. “Our staffs have not been together since last summer. We have technology that helps to mitigate that for sure, but we can do better. We have to do better.”
The men have access to a huge weight room, one that includes the tools these athletes need to train during their extended time in the bubble. Yet the women are expected to get by with a few yoga mats and a set of dumbbells anyone could buy at Target.
These are Division I athletes playing on the biggest stage in college basketball. They need to train, they need to be nourished, they need to feel like their league supports them.
This last part is something that is never in doubt on the men’s side. Just look at the awesome swag bag that greeted players when they arrived in Indy.
Wow. Look at all that cool branding. Check out all those Lysol wipes and hygienic supplies. A blanket, a hoodie, a book, and so much more. Naturally, a player would see this and think the person responsible for leaving it there cares about him quite a bit.
Now take a look at the women’s swag bag.
Ah yes, thank goodness I’ve been provided with a NCAA-branded scrunchie. I didn’t have anything to tie my hair back before I got here, but now I do. Phew!
And where’s all the hype? These don’t look like items provided by the governing body of college sports. They look like things my dad rummaged around in the garage for and gave to me out of the goodness of his heart. I’m looking at you, umbrella.
The difference between the branding of these tournaments is stark and some would say it’s a matter of revenue. But it seems like the NCAA Women’s Basketball Committee is actively trying to set itself apart from the branding of the men’s tournament.
“The Division I Women’s Basketball brand and what we have in there, frankly, that’s an effort that we’ve pushed out over the last couple years so that we can have that unique identifier associated with our sport,” said NCAA vice president Lynn Holzman.
Apparently, they don’t even refer to their round of the last four teams standing as the “Final Four,” but rather “Four It All.”
“We try to strike this delicate balance between being all the same and having some independence so that there’s this unique nature to these championships and to the sports,” said Gavitt. “We also have a bit of a challenge in that we have different, equally valued broadcast partners: ESPN for the women’s championship and CBS and Turner for the men’s championship. So branding around broadcast is an issue for those partners as well as for the two championships.”
That’s all well and good. I’m all for the women creating their own awesome brand and creating a unique hype separate from the men’s tournament. And I’m no marketing whiz, but a plain blue shirt that says #NCAAW or a flag that simply reads “NCAA Women’s Basketball” doesn’t quite generate the same hype as “March Madness” or “The Big Dance” do.
This doesn’t create a memorable experience for players or fans.
The bottom line here is this: If the NCAA is trying to forge a separate path for women’s basketball, it needs to match the high standard of men’s basketball. This is how you grow the game, the fanbase, the interest from young players.
The organizers in San Antonio say they are working to right this wrong as soon as possible, but honestly, this is something that never should’ve happened in the first place. The fact that someone actually put out sanitized yoga mats and a rack of 5- to 30-pound dumbbells and labeled it a weight room is astonishing to me.
This is a complex issue with a lot of moving parts, but until the NCAA puts the same value into both sides of college basketball, this is going to be a long haul to equality.