The NCAA's vicious cycle of devaluation
The NCAA gender inequity files, pt. 4
Today we continue our five-part series into the NCAA gender inequity files by zooming in on what I like to call the “cycle of devaluation.”
This is something we talk about *a lot* here in Power Plays. It’s the “chicken vs. the egg” conundrum that women’s sports is perpetually trapped in: What comes first in women’s sports, audience or investment?
You and I know that far too many Powers That Be see that equation as a linear and conditional equation, and decide there’s not enough of an audience for women’s sports to justify a big investment, without realizing that audiences don’t pop out of thin air. By doing that, they’re actually perpetuating the cycle of devaluation.
(Before going any further, please watch this clip of Sarah Ashlee Barker of Georgia hitting a long and contested three-pointer with .4 seconds left to send the NC State/Georgia game into OT last night, it will give you strength, unless you are a die-hard NC State fan.)
Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP’s reports on gender equity in the NCAA provide a unique and explicit look at how that cycle takes a myth and makes it a fact in four steps:
1. Accept a shitty broadcast contract that significantly devalues women’s basketball.
Often times it’s hard to figure out where cycles start — that’s, you know, the point (or lack thereof.) But I think it only makes sense to start with the broadcast contract, because it is the paper that establishes the framework of failure that follows women’s sports everywhere they go.
The NCAA has two major broadcast contracts. By far the bigger of the two is the contract with CBS/Turner, which has partnered with the NCAA to broadcast the Division I men’s basketball championship since 1982. The current broadcast contract was signed in 2016, and is set to expire in 2032. This year, CBS/Turner paid the NCAA $850 million, but that payment increases every year, culminating in $1.165 billion in 2032.
Since 1996, the NCAA has had a contract with ESPN to air the Division 1 women’s basketball championship. The contract was renewed in 2011, and lasts until 2024. The contract is for women’s basketball and 28 other NCAA championships. ESPN pays the NCAA an average of $34 million per year, but in 2021 it paid $41.8 million for the rights.
According to the Desser Media & Sponsorship Addendum, this is an EXTREME devaluation of both women’s basketball and other NCAA sports.
Yes, you read that correctly. The report says, “We estimate the WBBC alone to be worth between $81-112 million/year beginning in 2025, the first year after the current NCAA agreement with ESPN expires. A new 8-year, $909 million deal would be worth an average of about $114 million per year; a 10-year, $1.2 billion agreement would average $118 million per year.”
Here are a few more statistics about *why* this report sees women’s basketball as “one of the most valuable U.S. sports media properties” and a “tentpole event” for sports broadcasters.
Its TV audience, albeit considerably smaller than the men’s basketball championships, has been rising steadily even amidst a significant decline in overall sports, entertainment, and live event audiences that includes men’s basketball.
The 2021 women’s championship game on ESPN averaged 4.1 million viewers, an increase of 9% over the 2019 championship. The men’s championship game on CBS attracted 16.9 million viewers, a decrease of 8% over 2019.
That’s four times the viewers for the men’s championship, and a TV rights deal that generates 100 times the revenue for the men’s championships. Not sure that equation makes sense!
The women’s basketball championship usually outdraws TV viewership for all sporting events taking place in its window except the men’s basketball championship.
The women’s basketball championship is one of ESPN’s highest-rated programs of the year, outside of NFL games and the college football playoffs, and by far the biggest championships ESPN airs in March and April.
The report strongly argues that the NCAA needs to get out of this ESPN contract ASAP and sell women’s basketball championship rights separately from other championships in order to create a bidding war and maximize their value. Because it’s incredibly clear this is a premiere product, and it should be treated as such.
2. Create barriers that actively discourage sponsors from supporting women’s basketball.
I covered step two in full in a newsletter earlier this week, so I’m going to send you there to get caught up.
But the TL; DR is this: The lucrative CBS/Turner contract doesn’t solely give the network rights to broadcast the men’s basketball championship, it also gives CBS/Turner the sponsorship rights for every single NCAA championship, including women’s basketball. But because CBS/Turner doesn’t broadcast the other championships, they overwhelmingly (like more than 99% of the time) focus on sponsorship for men’s basketball.
3. Use the lack of revenue from sponsorship and TV rights to excuse treating women’s basketball as inferior to men’s basketball.
Now that we have accepted a paltry television rights contract for women’s basketball and enshrined a system that makes it incredibly difficult for the women’s basketball championships to gain sponsorship, it’s time for step three: Blame the lack of revenue the women’s basketball championships generate on the athletes themselves, and then punish them for it.
Earlier this year, when the NCAA was scrambling to justify its inferior treatment of the women’s championships during March Misogyny, it told media members that women’s basketball was one of the largest money losers out of all the NCAA championships.
The NCAA uses the hefty rights fee from CBS/Turner and the presumption that men’s basketball is solely responsible for all of that revenue to justify treating men’s basketball inequitably. For example, shortly after this year’s championship, the NCAA released background information to the press that ultimately shaped news reporting around the differences between the two championships’ spending. That background information furthered the narrative that women’s basketball “lost $2.8 million” in 2019, described as the “largest loss of any NCAA championship” that year. The supposed $2.8 million loss, however, appears to be based on a calculation of revenue that attributed all revenue from the CBS/Turner contract to men’s basketball alone.
When the NCAA was telling people that the women’s basketball championships lost $2.8 million, did they mention that they were leaving about $80 million on the table in television rights money? Or that they make it nearly impossible for sponsors to support women’s basketball, and even when sponsors do overcome the hurdles they have in place, they don’t even count that sponsorship as revenue for the women’s basketball tournament?
Friends, they did not.
Here, take a rage break by celebrating with Joni Taylor and her team:
4. Use the lack of revenue from sponsorship and broadcast partnerships to incentivize schools to invest more in men’s basketball than women’s basketball.
Step four sounds a lot like step three, I know, but in my opinion, it’s far more damning because it shows just how far and wide the NCAA’s sexist business model reverberates.
Here’s the excerpt from the report that honestly floored me:
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, the NCAA makes a decision to devalue the women’s tournament by accepting a shitty television contract, discouraging sponsorship, and putting all of its financial hopes and dreams on men’s basketball. It then uses that decision to justify treating women’s basketball like shit and to financially incentivize all of its member schools to treat women’s basketball like shit.
The next time someone says that athletes in women’s sports deserve inferior conditions and pay because women’s sports don’t make any money, give them a light slap across the face and then send them this newsletter.
The system is working exactly the way the Powers That Be want it to.