NCAA officials hope to avoid the gender-equity issues that plagued last season's NCAA women's basketball tournament, and said the men's and women's committees working more closely together has helped address that.
NCAA vice president of women's basketball Lynn Holzman, women's committee chair Nina King and NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt spoke to the media Friday outlining some of the changes in place for the upcoming tournaments.
They addressed the expansion of the women's field to 68 teams, the March Madness slogan and logo -- previously reserved for the men's tournament -- being used for the women, and greater uniformity between the tournaments in regard to signage, student-athlete gifts and amenities at the tournament sites.
The disparities between the men's event in Indianapolis and the women's event in San Antonio last year drew public attention and prompted the NCAA to commission a gender-equity report on all of its championships. The law firm of Kaplan Hecker & Fink released the basketball part of the report in August, and NCAA officials said it helped guide them to current changes.
"It was painful," King, who is the athletic director at Duke, said of last year's revelations about the NCAA's shortcomings regarding gender equity. "But a huge opportunity. Success [will mean] an equitable experience for men's and women's student-athletes participating in this championship. So we're really excited about these enhancements and how they play out."
Having greater synergy between the men's and women's basketball committees has helped.
"For whatever reason, the two committees have kind of operated independently," Gavitt said. "That was long before Lynn and I were even at the NCAA. [This] is one of the really powerful recommendations from the gender-equity report, and I think it has born a great fruit. You've got a lot more attention being given to how these championships are delivered and how to achieve equity in the decision-making."
However, the NCAA announced Feb. 18 that it would not follow the Kaplan report recommendation to consider having both the men's and women's Final Fours in the same city at the same time for now.
"We talked to women's basketball coaches, student-athletes, governance groups," King said. "We really just felt we wanted to see how these upcoming enhancements are going to impact the growth of the game and the championship. We didn't feel we wanted at this point to implement a change in the format to the Final Four."
The women's Final Four is in Minneapolis this season, Dallas in 2023, Cleveland in 2024, Tampa in 2025 and Phoenix in 2026. This season's regionals are in Greensboro, North Carolina; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Spokane, Washington; and Wichita, Kansas. Next season, the NCAA will move to two regions for the women instead of four, and those will be Greenville, South Carolina, and Seattle.
"Part of the objective of the committee when they made that decision a couple of years ago," Holzman said of the two-regional system, "was one of the goals was to see an increase in attendance."
The NCAA also was asked about the broadcast rights to the women's tournament, which ESPN holds. Those were sold in a bundle with 23 other NCAA championships to ESPN for $500 million in a deal that was announced in December 2011 and ends in August 2024.
"We have already started some strategic planning internally on how to approach that opportunity with those negotiations," Gavitt said. "It was pointed out in the [Kaplan] report that those rights are likely undervalued ... and that deal is 10 years old. Fortunately, the media marketplace has been very robust in the last decade.
"We're certainly optimistic and hopeful that we will see much greater media rights fees. And quite possibly taking the aggregated package of all the championships and looking to sell those rights maybe independent of other championships, Division I women's basketball right at the top of that list. But we haven't made final determinations, as we have some time to plan. ESPN has been an incredible partner and is very anxious to continue in business with us. So we'll see how that plays out."