As it turned out, Kim Mulkey needn’t have worried. The NCAA was able to to continue COVID-19 testing right to the end and finish a safe, successful tournament and Final Four in San Antonio, crowning Stanford the national champ in a game that went down to the wire.
Safe, because none of the games games throughout the tournament was postponed, and successful on many fronts.
The games were competitive, intense, high-level and the results were not predictable. UConn, 14-point favorites, for whatever that’s worth, lost to Arizona in the semifinals. The UConn-Iowa game generated tremendous buzz with the star power of freshmen Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark. The UConn-Baylor and Stanford-South-Carolina games were instant classics. There were controversial calls that had people talking, caring.
Television viewership, which can trigger so many positive ripple effects, was up significantly, 11 percent over 2019, the audience for UConn-Arizona peaking at over 3.3 million.
And as all this was getting our attention, Oregon’s Sedona Prince alerted the world to the tournament we wouldn’t necessarily have seen on the pregame shows, the gender inequities in facilities and food, less reliable antigen COVID-19 testing vs. swab testing, and that led to the discussion of logos, marketing and why “March Madness” has for too long been a alliteration that only applied to the men’s tournament.
Women’s basketball has made many breakthroughs across the years. Some of us are old enough to remember when the first undefeated UConn team of 1995 had the nation watching and was expected to spark the kind of progress that is still inexplicably elusive. Many epic games — UConn-Mississippi State, 2017, comes to mind — and charismatic stars have come and gone on to the pros these last 26 years. The game continues to grow and get better. There are more good players, more coaches, like Arizona’s Adia Barnes, building better programs.
But the underbelly issues remain because, in Kipling’s words, the tumult and shouting dies each year, then the captains and kings depart. We all move on to the Masters, to baseball and football, and, the women’s game seems to have to start from scratch the following fall.
Let’s not let that happen in 2021. From the NCAA on down to conferences and member schools, to TV executives and media, let’s make sure the gifts of the 2021 NCAA Tournament keep on giving.
“We’ll see,” UConn great and TV basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo told me last week. “That’s my attitude about it. I am so glad that the conversation is happening. It took a discrepancy in weight rooms or pictures of food on social media to be the catalyst for that. It’s been a long time coming. What is next year’s tournament going to look like? What are the budgets between the men’s and women’s tournament going to look like? That will really show us whether it’s lip service or whether it’s a true commitment.”
The lip service, we’ve seen. NCAA president Mark Emmert said, in his businesslike press conference, that the NCAA “dropped the ball” and promised to do better. An outside firm with expertise in gender equity and Title IX issues has been brought in to conduct a thorough review. He noted, more than once, that the NCAA has been running men’s championships for 100 years, and women’s for only 40, so there is a “60-year head start” to overcome.
Ummm, come on. That means the NCAA has had 40 years to catch up and, as Emmert said, many of the glaring issues exposed in San Antonio could be “fixed rather easily.”
So there will be studies and recommendations and committees; aren’t there always? It’s more about the mindset. Instead of noting that the women’s tournament doesn’t produce enough revenue, which depends on how you spin the numbers, incidentally, why not start with a determination to market and promote it until it does? Respect your own product, and you attract more to it.
“There’s no reason at all why those two [Final Four] logos can’t be whatever the women’s side wants,” Emmert said. “So the women’s staff are part of the NCAA. They’re part of my national office. We all work and live in the same building. This is not somebody against the NCAA; it’s part of the NCAA. The March Madness logo can, and if the women’s committee and the women’s community wants it used, there’s no reason why they can’t use it similarly. “Final Four” is used by both, and whether or not one wants to use the logo with a gender identifier is up to the committee, and they can certainly do whatever they’d like to do with those things. So, yes, I’m fully committed to doing that.”
The larger picture breaks off into smaller, lesser-known parts that fall on individual colleges and schools. Geno Auriemma said, during the height of the controversy over Prince’s TikTok post, that he fought 20 years at UConn to get the equity he sought.
“For a lot of coaches in women’s sports,” he said, “not just women’s basketball, that work just as hard as any other coach in America, and are successful and are doing an incredible job, and they’re doing it with the resources that you would say are less than adequate relative to what the men might have. And that’s at every school.”
As this tournament went on, the focus naturally and rightfully shifted to the basketball, and terrific basketball it was. Systemic issues like the ones exposed during this March Madness, and we’ll take it upon ourselves to apply that term to the women’s tournament, can’t all be fixed overnight. But they won’t get fixed without steady pressure and scrutiny, won’t get fixed if we all forget about that empty “weight room” now that a champion has been crowned.
Keep that intensity. The cheering has stopped, but the work must go on.
These are the 2020-21 AP Women's All-America Teams