At the women's Final Four, the biggest sign of progress was in the press room
#CoveringtheCoverage: IRL edition
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How the 2022 Women’s Final Four became the most-covered in tournament history
The 2022 NCAA women’s basketball tournament made a lot of history. Before the tournament, the NCAA expanded the women’s field from 64 to 68 and permitted it to use the March Madness branding for the first time ever. During the first weekend of games, 216,890 people attended games in person, setting an all-time attendance record. The epic N.C.-State/UConn clash was the first Elite Eight game to go into double overtime. And on Sunday night in Minneapolis, Dawn Staley became the first Black head coach to win two NCAA championships when her South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the UConn Huskies, 64-49, in a sold-out title game at Target Center.
But I want to zoom in on another record-setting feat: This year, there were more reporters and photographers at the Final Four to cover the madness than ever before.
The NCAA said it issued nearly 600 media credentials in Minneapolis, the most in NCAA women’s tournament history. The total number of credentials issued — a number that includes credentials for broadcast partners and other personnel — is close to 1,000. The previous record for total credentials issued came in 2018 at the Final Four in Columbus, when 773 were distributed. At the 2019 Final Four in Tampa Bay— the most recent comparison point, given the tournament was canceled because of the pandemic in 2020 and media was extremely limited due to covid restrictions in 2021 — the number was 716.
I first noticed the influx of reporters at the Greensboro regional last weekend. There were reporters in town from the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, The Athletic, Sports Illustrated, Associated Press, and ESPN.
I was at the 2019 Greensboro regional, and besides ESPN and the AP, I don’t remember any other national outlets on press row; the vast majority of the media was local to the teams or from sites that primarily cover women’s basketball.
I was intrigued, and in true #CoveringtheCoverage fashion, decided to look into how many reporters national outlets had sent to cover the women’s NCAA tournament regionals and Final Four in 2019 versus 2022.1 Here are some of the notable things I cam across in my research:
This year, the Washington Post2 had reporters at three of the four regionals: Gene Wang was in Bridgeport, Liz Clarke was in Greensboro, and Kareem Copeland was in Spokane. In 2019, the Post had zero reporters in person at the regionals3. Wang and Copeland are both at the Final Four reporting, as is columnist Jerry Brewer. In 2019, Ava Wallace was the only reporter covering the tournament in person. She was in Maryland when the Terps hosted the first two rounds, and at the Final Four in Tampa
The New York Times had reporters at every regional — Alan Blinder was in Bridgeport, Remy Tumin in Greensboro, Natalie Weiner in Spokane, and Kevin Draper in Wichita. Blinder, Tumin, and Weiner are all at the Final Four as well. In 2019, it appears Kelly Whiteside was the only NYT reporter covering the tournament in person, at both the Albany regional and Final Four.
USA Today columnist Nancy Armour and reporter Lindsay Schnell are both at the Final Four this year, and Schnell was at the Spokane regional as well. In 2019, Paul Myerberg was the only USA Today reporter in Tampa.
The Athletic had reporters at every regional — Charlotte Carroll was in Bridgeport, Grace Raynor was in Greensboro, Chantel Jennings in Spokane, and Shannon Ryan in Wichita. Carroll, Jennings, Ryan, and Nicole Auerbach are all at the Final Four. In 2019, The Athletic had three reporters at the Final Four in Tampa, and none at the regionals.
Sports Illustrated sent Ben Pickman to the Bridgeport regional and Emma Baccellieri to the Greensboro regional, and both were at the Final Four as well. In 2019, SI only sent Ben Baskin to the Final Four.
ESPN.com has always led the way for national sports media when it comes to covering the NCAA women’s tournament, which is important, given ESPN has the broadcast rights. This year, Alexa Philippou and Katie Barnes were at Bridgeport, Andrea Adelson was in Greensboro, Kevin Pelton in Spokane, and Mechelle Voepel in Wichita. Voepel, Barnes, and Phillippou are in Minneapolis, as are multiple writers from ESPN’s Ansdscape. ESPN had a reporter at each regional in 2019, and three reporters at the Final Four in Tampa.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune has ELEVEN REPORTERS here at the Final Four. I know it’s their local tournament, but still, eleven!!! I wanted to be sure to note that.
There were multiple national outlets that sent a reporter to the Final Four in Minneapolis that didn’t send anyone to Tampa, including The Wall Street Journal (Rachel Bachman), Philadelphia Enquirer (Jonathan Tannenwald), and Yahoo Sports (Cassandra Negley.) 4
What impresses me the most about this growth is that it’s not one person making the decision to invest in more coverage; it’s dozens of newsrooms across the country individually coming to that realization.
It’s difficult to get editors to discuss coverage plans on the record (though if any would like to, please reach out), but a clear narrative has emerged from my conversations in media workrooms — and, let’s face it, bars — over the past two weeks: The NCAA’s mistreatment of the women’s tournament was front-page, must-cover news last year, and the scandal not only raised the public’s awareness about the women’s tournament, it made Powers That Be at newsrooms look internally as well; after all, it’s hard to justify treating the women’s tournament as an afterthought in your own publication after devoting so much space to criticizing the NCAA for doing the same thing.
There’s more work to do, of course. The men’s tournament distributed about double the number of credentials as the women’s tournament, and plenty of big-time sports and news media companies aren’t represented here. (Most notably, in my opinion, CBS, which of course owns rights to the men’s tournament, but also has broadcast rights to some WNBA games on CBS Sports Network, and one would think would have a vested interest in covering the women’s game.)
Additionally, the media does not have as much access to players at the women’s tournament as the reporters have at the men’s tournament, and there are logistical challenges that come with increased media attendance that are harder to manage in basketball arenas than they are in football stadiums. (It’s crowded in here, is what I’m saying.)
But my goodness, having more media members on the sidelines — or skylines, in some of our cases — is a major win, and it has been inspiring to be surrounded by this talent and passion over the past couple of weeks. There are SO MANY phenomenal stories being written by my colleagues that I literally can’t keep up, which is my absolute favorite problem in the world to have. (Click on the hyperlinks above, follow these reporters, and read/share their work.)
Only time will tell whether this uptick in media coverage is a one-year fad in order to follow up on last year’s scandal or a true sign that institutional change is happening in newsrooms across the nation. The hope is that this is a tipping point that propels newsrooms to cover women’s basketball year-round and hire more reporters to work on the women’s basketball beat full time.
I truly think it will be. It’s a domino effect, after all — if the NYT sends three sports reporters to the women’s Final Four, it sends a clear signal to other organizations that this event matters.
And friends? It fucking matters.
I want to caveat that this information was harder than expected to track down, because most websites make it nearly impossible to properly search their archives, 2019 was practically a lifetime ago in media years, and reporters and editors are super busy this time of the year and (understandably) have more pressing inquiries to answer than mine. If I’ve made any errors or omissions, PLEASE reach out (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will fix them immediately.
The Post has had more dedicated women’s basketball coverage than many national papers throughout the years, since it has a beat reporter that primarily focuses on Maryland women’s basketball and the Washington Mystics. Kareem Copeland currently holds that beat, while Ava Wallace held it during the 2019 tournament.
While the Post didn’t have a reporter at the regionals in 2019, Wallace did cover the first two rounds at the University of Maryland. The Terps lost in the second round to UCLA that year, but it’s fair to say that if the Terps had won that game, Wallace would have travel to Albany to cover them in the Sweet 16.