The next battleground for college basketball: how to split the money

updated: South Carolina hit UConn win his second national championship.

MINNEAPOLIS – A quartet of elite college basketball teams met Friday in Minneapolis for the NCAA Women’s Final Four. The powerful programs – Connecticut, Louisville, Stanford and South Carolina – had gotten there by winning four games each during the competition.

But reaching one of the biggest stadiums in college sports didn’t earn them a dime from the NCAA that they could possibly have spent on scholarships, athletic facilities, or other costs. By contrast, their counterparts who made it to the Final Four in Saturday’s men’s tournament have likely each earned at least $ 10 million in their leagues in the past few weeks.

With the men’s Division I tournament generating multimillion-dollar earnings, women’s basketball coaches and their allies believe that administrators are much more likely to invest in men’s teams rather than women’s, who don’t earn their leagues directly from the NCAA, too. if they are among the best in the nation.

The disparity within the NCAA’s financial arrangements has existed for decades, with the association awarding “units” that, over time, turn into millions of dollars as teams catch up and then advance into the men’s event.

Now the future of the system is the subject of increasingly intense debate within the college sports industry, which has sparked public uproar and Congressional scrutiny after last year’s men’s tournament players received better services and facilities than to athletes who competed in the women’s event. The NCAA has taken steps in the past year to promote and improve conditions for the women’s event; this year, for example, the association fielded its “March Madness” brand for the women’s tournament for the first time.

But these changes are, in relative terms, miniscule alongside potential changes in the NCAA’s payment structure.

“I really think that to really make changes, we need to have a similar unified structure,” said Tara VanDerveer, who won three national championships as a Stanford women’s manager. “I mean, I love the crowd. I love the signage. “

But, he added, “I really think the bottom line is that it’s a television package and it’s a unitary structure. When that happens, we’ll know it’s serious. “

The NCAA, which gets most of its money from the men’s tournament television rights, distributes hundreds of millions of dollars annually through a variety of funds. Two of them, who will represent almost 36 percent of the approximately 625 million dollars distributed this year by the association, are directly and exclusively linked to participation in the men’s tournament.

Conferences accumulate shares of those funds by having their teams play in the men’s event, with programs winning tournament matches by earning additional units for their leagues as they progress through the competition. For example, UConn’s men’s basketball team, which lost to the State of New Mexico in the first round of the tournament, earned a unit that is likely to bring about $ 2 million for the Big East Conference; the latest tournament organized by UConn’s women’s team, which appeared in its 14th consecutive Final Four on Friday and advanced to Sunday night’s national championship game against South Carolina, was unsuccessful for the conference.

Although the NCAA recommends that leagues divide money equally between their schools, each conference can make its own arrangements.

And while the richest conferences earn most of their money from their regular season football and basketball television contracts, NCAA dollars are still among the biggest sources of revenue for any college sports league.

The College Football Playoff, which the NCAA does not control, distributes approximately $ 500 million annually to conferences that own it on the basis of a formula that takes into account bowling attendance and, to a much lesser extent, academic performance.

When it comes to basketball, the question is not whether to continue dividing NCAA loot between conferences, but how, even if there is no guarantee that a rebuilt system will lead to more money for women’s basketball or any other women’s sport. Title IX, the federal law banning discrimination on the basis of sex in nearly all educational settings, does not require dollar-for-dollar funding of men’s and women’s sports, and the NCAA currently does not regulate how conferences spend their funds based. on performance.

But coaches argue that a system that rewarded conferences for superior play in women’s basketball would push administrators to offer more aid to their programs, encouraging fairness and potentially leading to a better product and, ultimately, more unexpected gains.

In a report released last August, a law firm hired by the NCAA to study gender inequalities in college sports said the existing system “sends a clear and disturbing message to student-athletes that they are not as valuable as their male counterparts – literally, in monetary terms that can translate into millions of dollars ”.

The firm, Kaplan Hecker & Fink, urged the association to replace its current system and outlined an approach to equalizing an account’s distributions over 10 years of gradual change. He estimated, based on recent results in the men’s and women’s tournaments, that a handful of Division I leagues, including some of the most important, would receive multiple distributions. Five would see no changes. Eighteen of the 32 Division I conferences would sacrifice at least some money unless their women’s basketball teams improved in post-season play.

Others have suggested creating a new system to coincide with the upcoming TV rights contract for the women’s basketball tournament, which is currently bundled into a multisport deal that will pay the NCAA about $ 43.5 million this fiscal year.

Media consultants and college sports executives believe the current deal, due to expire in August 2024, dramatically undervalues ​​women’s basketball, likely by tens of millions of dollars a year. This year’s women’s tournament set attendance records and garnered some of the highest television ratings in decades.

A bigger pot of money, made possible by a sweetened media deal, could ease the political path to change the system.

“I think the powers that be might see the value of a new fund,” said Richard J. Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference since 1988 and someone who has long been a leading advocate of women’s basketball in the administrative ranks of the United States. college sports. “The timing could be great to institute this kind of formula with a new broadcast contract.”

Linking a redesigned distribution formula to a new television deal could also help advocates of women’s basketball fend off long-standing criticism: They simply want a reduction in the massive men’s tournament revenue, which is expected to earn $ 870 million from CBS and Turner quest. ‘year.

A fundamental philosophical question – whether payouts should be tied to winnings, for anyone – hangs over the debate at a time when the industry is facing some of the most sustained and strongest pressures in its history.

“We must first ask ourselves, should we reward performance? Should we reward teams and conferences in such a significant way? ”Said Julie Roe Lach, the commissioner of the Horizon League.

He added: “I’m not completely behind in continuing with that. I think we need to carefully examine whether this is in line with our mission and vision. “

NCAA president Mark Emmert last week declined to say whether he supported a review, but said it was “important” that the schools that run the association consider the changes. At least one NCAA committee is studying the matter.

“If there is any idea of ​​a direction to go within the next year, that would be great,” Emmert said Wednesday. “It doesn’t mean it can be implemented immediately, but there’s no reason they can’t start that debate and that discussion. But it is a very challenging debate between schools. Once you start talking about how to divide up resources, then those are difficult ”.

Indeed, there is also the question of whether sports besides basketball should have post-season play-related payments. Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, for example, said in an interview that his league would be interested in discussing the creation of performance funds related to baseball and softball, two sports in which his conference has thrived since. time. Other leagues, he said, may want to offer incentives related to other sports.

“We need to be considerate of delivering value in a broad sense,” Sankey said.

That discussion may take time, he and others have warned. But one of the most successful coaches in any sport in Sankey’s league, South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, has already made it clear that she wants an urgent rethink of the model for women’s basketball.

When asked last month what changes she wanted to see immediately, she replied “the units”.

“Those units,” he added, “equal dollar signs.”

The report was provided by Kevin Draper from Wichita, Kan., Remy Tumin from Greensboro, NC, Natalie Weiner from Spokane, Washington, e Billy’s joke of Nashville.