The Next Battleground for College Basketball: How to Split the Money

MINNEAPOLIS — A quartet of elite college basketball teams gathered in Minneapolis Friday for the Final Four of the NCAA Women’s Tournament. The flagship programs – Connecticut, Louisville, Stanford and South Carolina – had achieved this by winning four games each during the competition.

But reaching one of the biggest milestones in college sports hasn’t earned them a dime from the NCAA that they might be able to spend on scholarships, athletic facilities or other costs. By contrast, their counterparts who qualified for the Final Four of the men’s tournament on Saturday have likely each earned at least $10 million in their league in recent weeks.

With the men’s Division I tournament generating multimillion-dollar prize money, women’s basketball coaches and their allies believe administrators are far more likely to invest in men’s teams than women’s teams, which doesn’t pay off. not to their NCAA straight money leagues, even though they are among the best in the country.

The disparity in the NCAA’s financial arrangements has existed for decades, with the association awarding “units” that over time grow into millions of dollars as teams reach and then progress through the men’s event.

Today, the future of the system is the subject of an increasingly intense debate within the college sports industry, which has drawn public furor and congressional scrutiny after players in the tournament last year’s men’s event received better equipment and facilities than the athletes who competed in the women’s event. The NCAA has taken steps over the past year to promote and improve conditions at the women’s event; this year, for example, was the first time the association rolled out its “March Madness” brand for the women’s tournament.

But those changes are, in relative terms, tiny next to potential changes to the NCAA’s payout structure.

“I really think to really make changes we need to have a similar unit structure,” said Tara VanDerveer, who won three national championships as a women’s coach at Stanford. “I mean, I love the crowd. I love the signage.”

But, she added, “I think the bottom line is that it’s a TV package and it’s a unitary structure. When it happens, we’ll know it’s serious.

The NCAA, which makes most of its money from television rights to the men’s tournament, distributes hundreds of millions of dollars a year through a series of funds. Two of them, which will account for nearly 36% of the association’s approximately $625 million in distributions this year, are directly and exclusively related to participation in the men’s tournament.

Conferences accrue shares of these funds by fielding their teams in the men’s event, with programs that win tournament games earning additional units for their leagues as they progress through the competition. For example, the UConn men’s basketball team, which lost to New Mexico State in the first round of the tournament, won a unit that will likely lead to around $2 million for the Big East Conference. ; the latest tournament hosted by UConn’s women’s team, which played its 14th straight Final Four on Friday and advanced to Sunday night’s national championship game against South Carolina, did nothing for the conference .

Although the NCAA recommends that the leagues split the money equally among their schools, each conference is allowed to make its own arrangements.

And while the wealthiest conferences make most of their money from their own television contracts for regular-season football and basketball, NCAA dollars are still among the biggest sources of revenue for any league. college sports.

The College Football Playoff, which the NCAA does not control, distributes about $500 million a year to the conferences that own it based on a formula that takes into account bowling attendance and, to a much lesser extent, academic performance.

When it comes to basketball, the question isn’t whether to continue dividing NCAA loot between conferences, but how — although there’s no guarantee that a rebuilt system would lead to more money for women’s basketball or any other women’s sport. Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in nearly all educational settings, does not require dollar-for-dollar funding of men’s and women’s sports, and the NCAA does not currently regulate how conferences spend. money from performance-based funds. .

But coaches argue that a system that rewards conferences for superior play in women’s basketball would spur administrators to offer more help to their programs — encouraging fairness and potentially leading to a better product and, possibly, more. bigger deals.

In a report released last August, a law firm hired by the NCAA to study gender inequality in college sports said the existing system “sends a clear and disturbing message to female student-athletes that they are not not as valuable as their male counterparts – literally, in monetary terms that can translate into millions of dollars.

The firm, Kaplan Hecker & Fink, urged the association to replace its current system and outlined an approach to equalize distributions from one account over 10 years of incremental changes. He estimated, based on recent results from the men’s and women’s tournaments, that a handful of Division I leagues, including some of the larger ones, would receive more distributions. Five would see no change. Eighteen of the 32 Division I conferences would sacrifice at least some money unless their women’s basketball teams improve in the playoffs.

Others have suggested creating a new system in conjunction with the upcoming television rights deal for the women’s basketball tournament, which is currently bundled into a multi-sport deal that will pay the NCAA approximately $43.5 million in during this exercise.

Media consultants and college sports executives believe the current deal, which is set to expire in August 2024, significantly undervalues ​​women’s basketball — likely by tens of millions of dollars a year. This year’s women’s tournament set attendance records and achieved some of its highest ratings in decades.

A bigger prize pool, made possible by a watered-down media deal, could ease the political path to changing the system.

“I think the powers that be could see the value in a new fund,” said Richard J. Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference since 1988 and someone who has long been a leading supporter of women’s basketball. in the administrative ranks of college sports. . “The timing could be great to institute that kind of formula with a new broadcast deal.”

Tying a revamped distribution formula to a new television deal could also help women’s basketball supporters defend themselves against a long-standing criticism that they simply want a cut from the men’s tournament’s huge revenue, which is expected to bring in $870 million. at CBS and Turner. This year.

A fundamental philosophical question – whether payments should be tied to earnings at all, for anyone – looms over the debate at a time when the industry is facing one of the most sustained and vocal pressures in its history. story.

“We have to ask ourselves first, should we reward performance? Should we reward teams and conferences in this meaningful way?” said Julie Roe Lach, Horizon League Commissioner.

She added, “I’m not completely late to continue with this. I think we need to take a hard look at whether this fits with our mission and our vision.

NCAA President Mark Emmert declined to say last week whether he supported an overhaul, but said it was “important” that the schools that govern the association consider changes. At least one NCAA committee is studying the matter.

“If by this time next year there is an idea of ​​a direction to go, that would be great,” Emmert said on Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean it can be implemented immediately, but there’s no reason why they can’t start that debate and that discussion. But it is a very difficult debate between the schools. Once you start talking about how you’re going to allocate resources, it gets tricky.

Indeed, there is also the question of whether sports other than basketball should have post-season play-related payments. Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, for example, said in an interview that his league would be interested in discussing the creation of performance funds related to baseball and softball, two sports in which his conference has a long history. prosperous. Other leagues, he said, might want to offer incentives related to other sports.

“We need to think about delivering value at scale,” Sankey said.

That discussion could take time, he and others have warned. But one of the most successful coaches in all of Sankey’s league sports, Dawn Staley of South Carolina, has already made it clear she wants to urgently rethink the model of women’s basketball.

Asked last month what changes she wanted to see immediately, she replied: “units”.

“These units,” she added, “equal dollar signs.”

The report was provided by Kevin Draper of Wichita, Kansas, Remy Tumin of Greensboro, North Carolina, Nathalie Weiner of Spokane, Washington, and Billy Witz of Nashville.

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