The NCAA has underrated women’s basketball. Merchants don’t.

SPOKANE, Wash. “No one here could escape the symbolism. March Madness logos seemed to be everywhere in this small town last week, on posters, stickers, towels, electronic billboards and in hotel lobbies. Madness has come to this and the other three cities that host the final 16 teams of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

Last year’s tournament didn’t have that mark. Held entirely in crowded San Antonio-area venues, with a few games in San Marcos and Austin, the 2021 tournament felt like the NCAA’s evil stepson. While the men’s tournament reveled in coveted TV commercials and garnered a lot of attention, Sedona Prince shared the women’s paltry accommodations on her TikTok and Twitter accounts. The women play with all the skill and intrigue seen in the men’s game, but the NCAA has given Prince and his fellow competitors none of the pomp.

Consider this women’s tournament a fresh start. In basketball terms, a makeup call.

The action in Spokane showed the greatness on display in what is the first NCAA women’s tournament to feature 68 teams, like the men, and use the March Madness branding. There was smooth excellence, typified by defending champion Stanford, who strangled Maryland, 72-66, on Friday with her intensity and the do-it-all skills of Haley Jones, an American forward. There was also grit, embodied by Ohio State, who could have pulled off a last-minute comeback win over Texas on Friday, were it not for the Longhorns’ defense and the glow of rookie point guard Rori Harmon.

In addition to the signage, women this year should be given everything that men do for sweat, courage and skill. For women, it meant better food and goodie bags. “We have something new that I don’t think any of us have seen before: a hooded pillow!” Maryland point guard Katie Benzan said last week.

That’s all good and good. It is also an inexpensive fruit. Fifty years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that required gender equality in educational programs that receive federal government funding, the NCAA was urged on these simple changes after an internally-ordered review wowed the organization for an old-school man. . focused approach.

The study, known as the Kaplan report, found that the NCAA’s efforts to gain support and profit from the Division I men’s tournament limited the growth and value of the women’s tournament. Its lack of support for women has caused the NCAA to lose millions of dollars in TV revenue — while also angering and alienating fans.

The real test is yet to come. Simple changes can only go so far. In the wake of the outrage sparked by Prince’s video, the 2021 women’s championship game, a thrilling win by Stanford over Arizona, surpassed the average NBA playoff game last season. This year, TV viewership has increased dramatically for women’s games. And the NCAA women’s tournament continued the upward trend in popularity. The NCAA has an opportunity to produce a cash cow that drives the women’s game when it renegotiates its upcoming basketball broadcasting deal in 2024. Will it?

We are on a precipice. A “boat through the door” moment. Women’s college basketball looks set to rise like never before.

Take a step back from the big tournament. Guess who’s taking the most advantage of their growing popularity on social media and new college sports rules about endorsements?

“If you take football players out of the equation and look at how student-athletes are monetizing sponsors in this new world, female sports athletes are crushing men,” said Blake Lawrence, chief executive of Opendorse, a technology company that partnered with dozens of universities to help athletes navigate marketing opportunities.

As a whole, women’s basketball players receive the second most sponsorship money of any college athlete, according to Opendorse. They’re followed by – ahem, drum rolls, please – men’s basketball players.

And after them, the award list is filled with competitors from two more women’s sports: swimming and diving, and volleyball.

The biggest names in the NCAA women’s tournament are reaping huge benefits. Paige Bueckers, a second-year guard from Connecticut, is featured in Gatorade ads. Lawrence is confident that she is earning over $1 million from her endorsements. A teammate of hers, freshman Azzi Fudd, recently signed with Steph Curry’s management team.

After the two players starred in UConn’s 75-58 win over Indiana on Saturday, their 3-pointers have appeared on prominent shows and on social media, which is exactly why trademarks consider them valuable.

“I never would have thought this would happen when I was recruited,” said Stanford’s Jones. She announced the move to a world few could have imagined even last season, tagging her corporate sponsors, which include Beats by Dre, NBA 2K, Coin Cloud and Uncle Funky’s Daughter curly hair care line. Jones noted that she was now represented by PRP, a talent agency in Las Vegas whose clients include Shaquille O’Neal and Jayson Tatum.

Welcome to the revolution.

“It’s amazing to fly first class and stay in the best hotels,” Jones said, referring to his trips taken to shoot corporate videos. “I’m used to flying by bus and staying in the cheapest hotel possible.”

If you think the players who are reaping these kinds of benefits are going to advocate more of the same old treatment and inequality, think again. A new era of empowered competitors, led by basketball players, will continue to demand change far beyond the easy hosannas of better earnings, tastier food, and all those signs proclaiming March Madness.

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