One of the biggest stories from the 2021 women's NCAA basketball tournament began with a TikTok and might end — possibly, hopefully — with lasting change. You might remember Oregon Ducks forward Sedona Prince's video, which exposed the stark differences in the weight rooms available to men (a full-size gym) and women (a stack of dumbbells) players at college basketball's premier tournament. Widespread public backlash followed, forcing the NCAA to not only rectify the weight-room issue, but also take stock of the deeper inequities between men's and women's basketball.
One year and one 118-page gender-equality review later, you can expect the 2022 NCAA women's basketball tournament to look a little different. For one thing, the tournament is getting the iconic "March Madness" branding for the first time, and it's expanding from 64 to 68 teams — which has been the size of the men's tournament since 2011. More changes are being put in place behind the scenes as well. The referees will be paid the same in both tournaments, the players' swag bags of March Madness gear will be identical, and the NCAA has said that it's spending more money on the women's tournament, though it has not publicly disclosed an exact figure.
The hope is that these alterations are only the start of a broader wave of change. "I'm not even close to satisfied," UCLA coach Cori Close told Yahoo Sports in a recent interview. She described the changes as "low-hanging fruits" that don't yet touch the real inequities at the heart of the system.
So what changes will we see at this year's NCAA women's basketball tournament, and which ones have yet to be made? We broke it down for you ahead.
What Has Changed in NCAA Women's Basketball Since Last Year?
Since 2021, the following changes have been implemented to make the NCAA women's basketball tournament more equal to the men's:
- March Madness branding: In September 2021, the NCAA announced that the women's basketball tournament will receive the same March Madness branding that the men's tournament has used for years. You can already see the results on Twitter, where the NCAA women's basketball account is now named @MarchMadnessWBB to match the men's @MarchMadnessMBB.
- Equal swag bags: Another issue raised in 2021 was the baffling differences between the swag bags of branded merchandise given to the men and women players in the tournaments. This year, according to The New York Times, women will receive the same items as the men in their swag bags.
- More teams: The women's tournament will expand to 68 teams, equal to the men's side.
- Officials will be paid the same: In December 2021, the NCAA announced that it would begin equally compensating officials in the men's and women's college basketball tournaments. Previously, officials in the men's games were paid more. "All basketball officials, regardless of the gender of sport participants, will be receiving equal pay for championship games officiated in 2022 and beyond," the organization said in a statement.
- Larger NCAA women's basketball staff: According to The New York Times, the NCAA men's and women's basketball staffs will now each consist of 10 people. (In the past, the men's staff had 11 people to the women's seven.)
- More money spent on women's tournament: The gender-equality review, published by the law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, found that the NCAA spent $53.2 million on the 2019 men's tournament and $17.9 million on the women's. The budgets for both tournaments have reportedly been completely reworked for this year. Updated figures are not yet available, but the women's tournament budget is set to increase by "multiple millions," according to Yahoo Sports, with two officials suggesting a possible $5 million increase.
What Other Changes Are Needed in NCAA Women's Basketball?
The NCAA is making positive headway, but a few major obstacles remain when it comes to equality with the men's tournament.
- Broadcasting rights: The broadcasting rights for the women's tournament have not been put up for a competitive bid since 2001, The New York Times reports, and are currently held by ESPN as part of a larger college-sports bundle. The NCAA had been valuing the women's tournament at about $6 million a year, Yahoo Sports reports, but an independent analysis commissioned by Kaplan found that its true value could be more than $80 million per year. The next women's TV contract will begin in 2024 and carries the potential to pull in much greater revenue, particularly if it's sold as a standalone package like the men's tournament.
- Unequal incentive system: The NCAA's current revenue-distribution scheme allocates incentive money — in 2019, the total amount was $168.5 million, according to Yahoo Sports — to schools and conferences that have success at the men's basketball tournament. There is no such incentive system for the women's tournament, which naturally encourages schools to prioritize men's programs over women's. "It's systemic, and it encourages a certain behavior that inhibits the growth of women," Close told Yahoo Sports.
While the host of changes this year represent a step forward, it's these larger obstacles that have perhaps the most direct effect on the women's game in terms of money and opportunities. Women's coaches and players hope that these will be the next to come down as the NCAA moves toward gender equity in basketball.