Meet the No. 16 seed keeping the NCAA's systemic sexism in the spotlight
Forget cosmetic changes. Let's talk about UNITS.
Hello! Here’s a quick reminder that the second-best deal in Power Plays history (next to my launch deal) is only valid for the next 2 weeks, so take advantage now!
That’s enough groveling for the day. Today, with the Sweet 16 on the horizon, I’m going to tell you about a 16-seed that lost in the first round, but that made quite an impression on me in the process. And we’re going to review what “units” are, and refresh our memories about how skewed the NCAA’s system is.
Okay, friends. Let’s do this.
Lipstick on the patriarchal and systemic devaluation of women’s basketball
I spent the first two — well, including the First Four, three — rounds of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina, where N.C. State hosted four other teams at Reynolds Coliseum.
Coming into the week, I had two main goals: To enjoy getting to cover these players *in person* after two long years, and to keep the NCAA’s gender inequity problems in the spotlight.
After last year’s March Misogyny, the NCAA and its broadcast partner ESPN have been busy promoting all the positive changes that have been made over the past 11 months — including allowing the women’s tournament to (finally) use the official March Madness branding, and expanding the women’s field from 64 to 68 for the first time ever. But these modifications are mostly cosmetic, and as we’ve previously discussed in the five-part Power Plays series, the NCAA gender inequity files, sexism is built into every crevice of the NCAA’s framework. So while I understand the urge to celebrate the small stuff, this is a situation where I think it’s extremely necessary to hold our applause until the end of the systemic overhaul.
Anyways, my first goal was easy as hell to accomplish; women’s basketball is the best, the atmosphere in Reynolds was electric, and it was beyond invigorating (albeit exhausting) to be back in press conferences and watching the action courtside. I am blessed, grateful, and had a blast. Check.
As for the second goal, well, it turns out that I didn’t have to work that hard at that one either — there was a team in Raleigh talking openly about the NCAA’s structural shortcomings all on their own.
Power Plays readers, meet the Longwood Lancers.
Let’s review how Longwood made the tournament in the first place
Longwood University is a small public school with about 5,000 students located in Farmville, a rural town of under 10,000 located in central Virginia. Its women’s basketball team burst onto the national stage a couple of weeks ago when it trounced No. 1 seed Campbell — which beat Longwood twice in the regular season — by 39 points, 86-47, to win the Big South championship.
The victory clinched Longwood’s first-ever trip to the women’s DI tournament, so it was a *huge* deal, made even more special because it occurred just hours after the Longwood men’s team earned its debut ticket to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament with its own Big South championship.
The team is led by head coach Rebecca Tillet, who has spent the last four years pulling the program out of the gutter, quite literally; her first season, the Lancers went 2-16 in the Big South, while this year they were 15-3.
It was such a big deal that both Longwood teams made it to the NCAA tournament that Farmville held a parade for both of them and people lined the streets!!!
On Selection Sunday, Longwood found out it was seeded No. 16 in the women’s tournament, and given one of the First Four slots — meaning it would face another No. 16 seed, Mount St. Mary’s, with the winner advancing to face No. 1 seed N.C State.
Coach Tillet began her team’s tournament with a ‘breakfast on equity,’ citing stats from the NCAA gender equity report
I started looking into Longwood the second I found out they were going to be playing in Raleigh, and I instantly knew this was a team I could get behind.
First off, when Virginia Governor Glenn Younkin congratulated the Longwood men’s team for making the tournament but didn’t mention the women, some players called him out on social media. In the same Washington Post article about Younkin’s snub, Coach Tillett talked openly about how she’d had to push internally at Longwood to get equipment “almost as good as what the men have,” and how she was still fighting for staffing equity.
But what completely blew me away was a video posted on the team’s social media channels on March 16th, the day before Longwood’s First Four game.
In the clip, Coach Tillett is talking to her players over breakfast about the changes the NCAA made to the women’s tournament over the past year.
“This year, I mean I’m so excited for you guys, because whatever they give for the tournament … like the gear and stuff, you’re getting the exact same thing,” she said. “That’s never been true for all the women before you, they never got the same thing, they never got equal.”
Then a player (who I believe is sophomore guard Adriana Shipp, though it’s a bit hard to tell in the video) asks about the difference in television contracts between the men’s and women’s tournaments: “The guys … their contract is $1.1 billion. How much did you say ours was?”
“So what ours is valued at is $81-112 million,” Coach Tillett responds. “Now, here’s the step though — you do that, you put it out there, that value’s going to increase once people have access to watch it. People can’t value something they don’t ever get to watch or see.”
Here’s a little reminder about what they’re talking about: ESPN pays the NCAA approximately $34 million a year to broadcast 29 NCAA championships, including women’s basketball; meanwhile, CBS/Turner pays the NCAA approximately $1 billion per year to broadcast the men’s NCAA basketball championships. The ESPN contract expires in 2024. The Dresser Media & Sponsorship Addendum of the Kaplan & Heckler report — which was commissioned in the wake of Sedona Prince’s viral TikTok video exposing the inequities between the men’s and women’s weight rooms during last year’s tournament — conservatively estimated that the broadcast rights for the women’s basketball tournament alone are actually worth $81-112 million per year.
To have a coach DIRECTLY CITING from the Kaplan & Heckler reports to teach her players about systemic inequity, and then the team promoting that talk on their social channels during the NCAA tournament? *That* is what empowerment is.
And we’re not done yet.
In press, coach Tillett and her players brought up a very under-discussed element of NCAA inequity: THE UNIT
On March 17, following Longwood’s 74-70 victory over Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four, I asked Coach Tillett about the video, and how she felt about being part of NCAA tournament history by playing in the inaugural women’s First Four.
She began her response by reiterating that important strides have been made, and that her players are benefiting by getting the same gear and overall tournament experience as the men, something women that came before them didn’t receive.
But then she LEVELED UP:
Coach Tillett: While we're very grateful for that and want to be educated about that, we want to take the next step forward. So we're excited for when the ESPN contract negotiation comes up and women's basketball can get the value that it's worth — which thankfully (after what) Sedona did, the report that came out showed how much value there is in women's basketball.
So let's keep taking steps forward, and then let's get a unit for women's basketball, so that when these women put in all that work and all that sacrifice and they compete at a really high level, there's, you know, a monetary reward for the universities for that. Because if you invest in women, great things are going to happen.
Friends. After the first NCAA tournament win of her coaching career — which was broadcast on ESPN networks, I might add — Coach Tillett brought up ESPN/NCAA contract negotiations and THE UNIT.
And she wasn’t alone!! The following day, I asked Lancer stars Kyla McMakin and Akila Smith a fairly broad question about the video, and what they had learned about the history of the women’s tournament.
Here’s McMakin’s answer in full:
McMakin: So we learned some of the strides that have already been made with the 68 games, and the equal tournament experience for both men and women. But then we also learned about units that men get paid just to be in the tournament that women do not get. It's over periods of six years, just money that they get.
So [we’ve learned the importance of] educating ourselves on that, and then vocalizing, ‘That's something we want to add, too,’ … making sure that we're not scared to say this. Even though it's a tough conversation and sometimes it's uncomfortable, it's important that we speak up and know these facts so that we can continue to spread the news about it and hopefully get some things going.
Hell. Yeah. Spread the news.
Okay, that sounds nice, but what in the world is THE UNIT?
I’m so glad you asked. Because I’ve actually never explicitly talked about this in Power Plays.
In pt. 4 of our NCAA gender inequity files, “The NCAA’s vicious cycle of devaluation,” we looked at one of the most damning sections of the Kaplan & Heckler report, about the Basketball Fund:
The NCAA’s revenue distribution model prioritizes and rewards investment in men’s basketball. One of the NCAA’s fundamental tenets is that it distributes most of its revenue back to its membership—most of which goes to the Division I conferences and schools to fund their athletic programs.
The largest slice of the pie is distributed through what is known as the “Basketball Fund,” which allocates revenue among conferences based solely on the participation of a conference’s automatic qualifying team in, and a conference’s overall performance at, the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. In other words, the further a school’s team makes it in the men’s tournament, the more revenue that school’s conference is given. As a result, institutions are incentivized to invest in their men’s basketball programs in the hopes of progressing as far as possible in the men’s tournament to gain as much revenue as possible.
There is no analogous financial reward for participation in or performance at the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship. This sends an obvious and loud message to student-athletes, conferences, and schools about which sports matter and which sports do not.
So basically, because of the Basketball Fund, conferences and schools receive a lot of money when their team plays a game in the men’s NCAA tournament. And the Basketball Fund is distributed via The Unit.
The best explanation I found of all of this came from the incomparable Will Hobson way back in 2014 via The Washington Post:
The fund is doled out using a complicated formula that rewards conferences for how their teams played over the previous six tournaments. The key component of this formula is the “unit.” Every game a team plays in an NCAA tournament earns one “unit” for its conference. More teams in the tournament mean more units, and more teams winning and advancing to play more games also mean more units.
The math can get tricky because the exact amount of The Unit changes a bit each season, and covid definitely impacted the payouts the past couple of years; in addition to the Washington Post piece linked above, there are a few really recent detailed breakdowns of Unit Math over at Boardroom, Sportico, and the LA Times. But for our purposes I’ll oversimplify with round numbers: Units are worth around $300,000, and for each game played in the NCAA men’s tournament, the team’s conference is paid one unit each year for the next six years. That means each game in this year’s men’s tournament could be worth upwards of $2 million for the conference once it is all paid out. (The NCAA does encourage conferences to split this money equally among member schools, but that’s not a requirement.)
So the Longwood men’s team earned approximately $2 million for the Big South conference just by getting into the NCAA tournament, even though they lost in their first game. The women’s team, which played two games, earned nothing.
The Unit for men’s basketball is made possible because of their massive contract with CBS/Turner. That’s why, as Coach Tillett said, it is vital that the NCAA pursues a much more lucrative broadcast deal for the women’s tournament in 2024.
It’s absolutely CRUCIAL to keep this inequity in the headlines, because the NCAA cares first and foremost about appearance
Now, look. I do believe that there are well-meaning people at the NCAA, ESPN, and at companies and colleges across this country who are truly fighting the good fight for investment in women’s sports. I also know that the only reason we’ve seen any changes this year is because of how visible the discrepancies were last year, thanks to the congruous bubbles and the power of social media.
Since the NCAA has already taken care of some of the most apparent (and easily fixed) issues, we’ve got to keep stirring the waters so the sludge of sexism stays on the surface.
I keep thinking about a Sports Illustrated report from last week, in which congressional members called out the NCAA for failing to make meaningful change on gender equity. The piece included a few frenzied emails sent by NCAA power brokers to one another right after Prince’s weight-room video went viral last March. The emails — which you can read in full here — show an organization in a panic to pacify its sponsors and make the perception of a problem go away as quickly as possible.
I could (and probably should) do an entire newsletter on the email exchanges, but let’s just hone in on one sliver.
Ellen Lucey, the director of championship engagement at the NCAA, wrote in an email on March 20 that a primary NCAA sponsor, Capital One, felt “uncomfortable with non-partners coming in with offers; the underlying feeling is that it makes them appear not to be supporting both, which is unfair.”
The following day, on March 21, Lucey sent a follow-up email about Capital One.
That screenshot is a bit hard to read, so here’s the most important part:
Update, I spoke to Capital One tonight and shared there are no more inequities between the men and women’s tournaments that needs to be addressed.
He asked, “will we not continue to see or hear about issues?” I told him, no. I also shared we are working on statements to explain our partners have been there for women’s basketball for years. And we will have a statement to decline all the offers of help.
Now, while I understand the emails were focused on putting out immediate fires and not necessarily big-picture stuff, there are three parts of this exchange that bowled me over: The fact that an NCAA official actually typed the words, “there are no more inequities between the men and women’s tournaments that needs to be addressed (sic),” which we all know is UTTER BULLSHIT; the fact that Capital One wanted assurances that said inequities would not continue to be in the spotlight, and the NCAA promised that they wouldn’t; and the fact that the NCAA said it was “working on statements to explain our partners have been there for women’s basketball for years,” even though THE NCAA MAKES IT INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT FOR SPONSORS TO SUPPORT THE WOMEN’S TOURNAMENT!!!!!!!
Phew. I’m getting off track. My point is, appearances matter to sponsors, and the NCAA deeply cares what sponsors think. That’s why I was so inspired by what Longwood said over the weekend, and wanted to make sure to highlight it. If every team can their platform during this tournament as effectively as 16-seed Longwood did, the women’s tournament will be a hell of a lot closer to The Unit.
Why Longwood matters
The Lancers ultimately lost on Saturday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA tournament, falling 96-68 to No. 1 seed N.C. State. (Notably, they fared better than No. 9 Kansas State did in the second round, when it lost 89-57 to the Wolfpack.) But before the next weekend of play begins, I want to take a minute and highlight a few of Longwood’s stories.
The NCAA tournament marked the end of the college playing career for graduate student Tra’Dayja Smith — or DayDay as her teammates call her. She ended it with a bang, scoring a career-high (and game-high) 25 points against N.C. State. Coach Tillett said DayDay “has an incredible mind for the game, and is someone that should be coaching a Power Five team someday in her future.”
Senior Akila Smith is still deciding whether she’s going to use her covid year of eligibility next season, but either way, she’s already made a huge impact on Longwood and women’s basketball as a whole. Smith was the Big South Player of the Year this season, finished third in the nation in blocks, and in the First Four game against Mount St. Mary’s, she notched 32 points and 13 rebounds. She’s put her heart and soul into the sport over the last four years, and has transformed on and off the court. “Everybody knows her around campus because she's in gym at 6 in the morning, 7 in the morning,” Coach Tillett said.
Kyla McMakin became the leading scorer in Longwood women’s basketball history during the game against N.C. State, and since she’s only a junior, she’ll be back next season to go after Big South records. She’s a computer science major, and Tillett says she’s “one of the fiercest competitors she’s ever met.” Longwood was her only DI offer, and she understandably plays with a chip on her shoulder.
Coach Tillett will be back next season, too; unless, of course, a Power Five school hires her away. In press, she was refreshingly frank when Mitchell Northam asked about this scenario.
“I think you always have a responsibility to take those calls, especially as women. I think we have to take those calls. I have been poured into by other women. I have been taught how to negotiate,” she said. “At this point in time, I'm really happy with what we're building and what we're trying to do. I'll answer my phone when calls come, and I'm also really committed to what we're doing over here.”
She is certainly a coach to watch, especially since no matter where she is, we know women’s empowerment will be a top priority. (A fun note: She regularly brings in powerful women to talk to her players — including friends of the newsletter Ari Chambers and Kelsey Trainor, which we LOVE.)
Remember the video from the breakfast on equity? I’ll leave you with what Coach Tillett told her players after schooling them on the Kaplan & Heckler report and the value of NCAA media rights.
“This will matter for your career if you go into college athletics. It matters for the programs you lead. It matters for you individually as you negotiate contracts. It matters.”
Friends, I’ll be at the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four, and I promise to have multiple dispatches from teams still in the tournament. Thanks for letting me go long on the team that captured my heart over the weekend. I’ll be back tomorrow. I want you all to get a bit sick of seeing me over the next couple of weeks. Let the Madness continue. xo