August 28, 2023
Institutional Knowledge: For now, women’s basketball is along for the realignment ride
Football moves have created major instability for women's basketball, other NCAA sports
It started with a wondering: If women’s basketball hadn’t been undervalued by, well everyone, all of these years, could the money coming in from media rights, primarily from the NCAA Tournament, changed any of the decision-making made during this realignment mess?
I figured, by the way, I already knew the answer when I asked it.
“I don’t think it would have changed any of the recent decisions quite frankly,” said William Mao, Senior Vice President for Media Rights at Octagon. “In the context of these power conferences, it’s heavily and almost primarily driven by, you know, FBS football.”
Yep, we know.
The upheaval of college women’s basketball over the past three years has been profound. Name, image, likeness (NIL). The transfer portal. And now the realignment of power conferences that will upend rivalries, usher in cross-country conference games and end the Pac-12 Conference, one of most storied women’s basketball conferences in the country throughout the game’s history, after the 2023-24 season.
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How will the game fare? Will it continue to thrive in attendance and viewership and interest, not only nationally, but regionally? How will recruiting be impacted? Will the voice of non-football student-athletes — already beginning with Pac-12 softball players who shared their displeasure at the changes that will be foisted on them — get louder and how will women’s basketball players participate in that dialogue?
Some of these are questions we’ve asked since that fateful Friday three weeks ago when the Pac-12 imploded before eyes. Some are new. The answers are no closer.
Some of that has to do with the fact that we are still talking about these circumstances in the hypothetical, with a year before these changes are actually in place. Some of it has to do with the ripple effects of these decisions that have yet to reveal themselves.
Mao said the reality is that even an elevated media rights model for college women’s basketball, even one in which the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was negotiated on its own, likely wouldn’t contribute more than 5 to 10% of to an athletic department’s media rights — not enough to change the calculus on the decisions being made around football media rights.
But Mao still sees plenty of strength in the women’s game as a product.
“If you look at the broader picture, the teams that were in the Elite Eight in last year’s tournament, how many of them are in sort of either the same place they were before or or in a similarly strong position?” Mao said. “I think the overall health [of the game] is good irrespective of how this ultimate situation in the Bay Area, and with Washington State and Oregon State resolves itself. I think women’s basketball, if you look at their field, the overall field is still in as strong a place as it was prior to all this.”
Val Ackerman — the current Big East Commissioner, the founding President of the WNBA and the author of a 2013 white paper that served as a roadmap for some of the game’s biggest changes over the past 10 years — is not just worried about how women’s basketball will weather this seismic period of change.
“I think the future of all college sports is a bit up in the air now with these moves,” Ackerman said. “We haven’t seen the impact of travel. We have yet to see the impact of having different rivalries, the loss of old rivalries. We haven’t seen what cost structures will be, accounting for travel and other expenses.
“I think it’s just too early to say what impact you know, this is going to have long-term on any sport. I think you’re going to see schools saying that the increased revenues will be put back towards student-athlete experiences and well-being, but I think we haven’t seen yet the offsets from enhanced travel. So I think it’s just too early to know. It’s just too early.”
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, the independent “think tank,” saw this very scenario coming, one in which the money generated by college football swallows up the rest of Division I collegiate athletes.
Last week, Knight Commission CEO Amy Privette Perko issued a statement saying that the dissolution of the 108-year-old Pac-12 should be “the final tipping point forcing university presidents to explain why the current structure is still in the best interests of all Division I college athletes in all sports.”
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Perko describes the current reality. While the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), and affiliated conferences reap the financial rewards from television contracts, the NCAA, which is largely funded by the NCAA March Madness contract, still handles regulatory functions and pays significant expenses related to football, but does not receive any revenues from the sport. FBS revenues are retained by FBS conferences and institutions.
“The NCAA needs to focus solely on the sports for which it controls a championship,” Perko said. “And all those other sports would then receive the attention they deserve…But the [current] structure, even though the NCAA receives zero in revenue for football, the structure and the power is still built around the football conferences.”
Perko said that The Knight Foundation presented data to an athletic directors conference in June that showed that nine power-conference football programs are currently spending more on the salaries of 11 football coaches than the combined expenses of the rest of their university’s athletic programs. And that number is expected to expand to 26 programs by next season.
That flies in the face of the narrative that football is supporting all of the other athletic programs. In reality, football is doing the best job of supporting itself.
“It’s just totally incongruent with the mission of college sports,” Perko said.
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Former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is publicly advocating for a scenario making its way around college athletics and the national realignment conversation: Spin football off from the NCAA to form their own entity and allow college basketball, baseball, softball and the Olympic sports to continue the conference model. The Knight Commission recommended a similar governing structure in 2020.
“Get people in a room and map it out,” McGraw said. “There are a lot of smart people out there. They can figure it out. For [NCAA President] Charlie Baker, appoint a committee to look at this. It can be done.
“The NCAA President just talked [in early August] about prioritizing the needs of the student-athlete. They are already failing at that.”
Where is the appetite for this kind of change, which makes plenty of common sense on paper or in social media posts but in reality would need buy-in at so many levels? And would it even take us back to where we were, with conferences that have more regional footprints? Can what’s been broken be mended in this scenario?
“I think momentum is growing,” Perko said. “Frankly, the athletic directors who are FBS athletic directors, more and more of them are publicly supportive of this kind of change. And even a greater number of them are supportive in private. The leaders that have not been in favor have been the conference commissioners again, because it disrupts their current power base.”
McGraw thinks a model in which FBS football is separated from the rest of college athletics could improve gender equity across the board.
“Schools would be in more compliance without football, athletic departments taking care of their sports,” McGraw said. “It could be good for women’s sports.”
The two-time NCAA champion coach said she worries first and foremost about student-athlete experience.
“It’s not going to be the same experience for a lot of athletes,” McGraw said.
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Student-athlete voice may help move the needle the same way it did for improvements to the Women’s Final Four following the bad publicity the NCAA received for its treatment of players during the COVID bubble tournament in 2021.
“I think the athlete’s voice will be critical,” Perko said. “It will also be interesting to see if athletes begin to make decisions that impact recruiting, and how much of a ripple effect this has and whether athletes who haven’t made decisions will sign on in ways they have before, especially at the institutions that have some really challenging travel schedules.
“But I also think athletes’ voices will be important in asking hard questions, just that simple question of asking commissioners and presidents, ‘How does this structure best serve our sports?’ and ‘Is there a different way?’”
Perko believes many presidents and commissioners and athletic directors are wishing they could start over with a blank slate.
“The challenge is they can’t figure out how to unravel the situations they are all in now,” Perko said.
McGraw also wants to see university presidents step up and speak up for their student-athletes.
“This has to start on campuses, and the priority has to be student-athlete experience. Something needs to motivate these presidents to speak up. But we know that nothing moves the needle unless there’s money behind it.”
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Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.