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NCAA tournament gender inequities show up starkly in revenue distribution

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell03/09/23


If UConn’s men’s basketball team reaches the Final Four, it will yield a multimillion-dollar payday for the Big East, one that will financially reward the league’s schools for each of the next six years under the NCAA’s revenue distribution model. 

But if UConn’s women’s basketball team reaches its Final Four, the NCAA tournament run will deliver Big East schools exactly zero dollars.

The gender inequities inherent in the NCAA’s revenue-distribution model come into sharp focus every March Madness. They are amplified even more this March because there’s been no change on this front even though it’s been two years since Oregon star Sedona Prince first cast a social media-driven spotlight on a host of related issues. 

“If you are going to reward athletic performance, you need to reward it on a gender-equitable basis,” Amy Perko, CEO of the reform-minded Knight Commission of Intercollegiate Athletics, told On3. She later added, “The NCAA has to change its revenue-distribution formula because it is inconsistent with its constitutional principle. This is an area that the new administration, with Charlie Baker as president, should prioritize, and one that the NCAA can act on.”

After Prince’s TikTok video went viral and a subsequent NCAA-commissioned report in August 2021 made several important recommendations – including on the revenue distribution front – it felt like meaningful change was afoot. Some notable changes were indeed made, including implementing March Madness branding into last season’s women’s tournament and enhancing the student-athlete experience. And the NCAA’s then-president Mark Emmert said last year that “preliminary discussions” were under way to address distributing tournament revenue to women’s teams.

But the NCAA will award more than $170 million this year for teams’ success in the men’s tournament while awarding zero dollars for the success in the women’s tourney. Why has nothing changed?

In its January report, the NCAA Transformation Committee recommended that the Division I revenue-distribution model be evaluated to “consider models that reflect contemporary Division I values and account for athletic performance in more sports than men’s basketball.” Among the considerations were gender equity. The Division I Board of Directors formally adopted the committee’s recommendations. 

An NCAA spokesperson told On3 that the Division I Board of Directors Finance Committee will review recommendations relating to revenue generation as well as revenue distributions beyond possible financial “units” for the sport of basketball.

“More than 500 days have now passed since the NCAA’s own commissioned report (conducted by law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink) told it it needed to change, and yet there has been no change,” said Perko, whose Knight Commission believes the NCAA Division I Board of Directors should deal with the issue at its meeting next month. “This issue needs to be addressed with much more urgency.”

Conference commissioners are incentivized to find ways to boost their men’s basketball strength of schedule and their NET ranking to increase their chances of making the NCAA tournament and, in turn, reward the league’s teams financially. Under the current revenue-distribution model, no such incentive exists on the women’s side. The Kaplan report stated that the existing model “sends a clear and disturbing message to female student-athletes that they are not as valuable as their male counterparts – quite literally, in monetary terms that can translate into millions of dollars.”

The revenue-distribution model dictates that men’s basketball teams can amass financial units from two funds: the Men’s Basketball Performance Fund and the Equal Conference Fund. In simplest terms, a league receives a unit each time one of its teams plays in a tournament game, except for the national title game.

For a sense of how the model could benefit leagues and teams, consider the Pac-12’s unexpected success in the men’s tournament two years ago. It racked up 19 total units, which translated into its most financially successful tournament ever. And the best news for the conference is that a league profits annually from the units amassed during each tournament over a six-year rolling period. For example, this year a league will profit from units collected between 2018-23.

The amount typically increases by differing amounts each year. In 2021, each basketball unit was worth $337,141, for a total of $168.5 million distribution. In 2022, each basketball unit was worth $338,210.96, for a total of $169.1 million distribution. This year, each unit is worth about $339,989, for a total of more than $170 million.

If and when a change is made, another question is where the funds distributed to women’s programs would come from.

The NCAA’s media-rights deal with ESPN for the women’s tournament, which expires in 2024, is part of a bundled package with the rights to 28 other championships. That deal pays the NCAA some $34 million annually.

If the revenue-distribution model is changed, the dollars handed out for success in the women’s NCAA tournament don’t have to come from that pool of funds. Nor does the NCAA need to wait for a new women’s tournament media-rights deal to enact change.

CBS and Turner Sports will pay the NCAA about $900 million for this year’s men’s tournament as part of a media-rights deal that runs through 2032. As Perko noted, some $600 million is distributed to schools from that revenue pool.

“Like men’s basketball, they get units and those units equal dollar signs,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said last year. “I would like for us to divvy it up like the 68 (men’s) teams get (their revenue) divvied up once the tournament ends.”

Changing the current model could be important on another front. When the NCAA appeals to Congress for a federal bill addressing NIL and antitrust issues, Perko said, it should want to show “that it is operating in a way that is consistent with its constitutional principles and in gender-equitable ways.” She called it a “difficult ask” to seek Congressional help if the NCAA has not changed its ways after a report it commissioned said it was not in compliance with its own gender-equity principle.