Gender inequity report: NCAA spends far less on women’s championships, hindering their growth potential

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The NCAA spends more money on men’s championships than women’s, especially in sports the NCAA considers to be revenue-producing.

That is the biggest takeaway from a new report released last week by law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP (KHF). The NCAA commissioned the firm to conduct an external review after numerous gender disparities were exposed at last spring’s men’s and women’s Division 1 basketball tournaments. Following publication of last week’s report, the NCAA’s Board of Governors released a statement expressing the NCAA’s commitment addressing issues of gender equity across all sports.

KHF’s first report, released in August, focused only on gender inequity in the NCAA’s basketball tournaments. This second report examined the NCAA’s other 84 championships, which are contested across 23 sports and three divisions.

Here are a few of the most significant takeaways. (The full 150-page report can be found here.)

The NCAA spends more money on male student-athletes than female student-athletes

During the 2018-19 season, the NCAA spent an average of $4,285 for each athlete who competed in a men’s Division I or NC (open to all divisions) championship. In comparison, the NCAA spent only $2,588 for women’s tournament participants (a difference of $1,697).

The gap was even greater in the NCAA’s six single gender sports (beach volleyball, bowling, field hockey, football, rowing, and wrestling). In those sports, the NCAA spent an average of $2,229 more on each athlete participating in the men’s championships than the women’s ($5,282 compared to $3,053).

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The NCAA only considers men’s sports to be revenue-producing, but doesn’t have a clear definition of what that means

The only championships that the NCAA considers to be revenue-producing are the men’s championships in baseball, basketball, ice hockey, lacrosse, and wrestling.

This determination has a significant impact on student-athlete experience, and the greatest gender disparities can be found in the sports in which one championship is viewed as having more revenue potential than its gender counterpart (I.e. women’s softball, basketball, ice hockey, and lacrosse).

To put this in perspective, here is how much the NCAA spent on baseball/softball, ice hockey, and lacrosse championships per student-athlete during the 2018-19 season:

Men’s Championship Women’s Championship
Baseball/Softball $9,281 $4,970
Ice Hockey $9,805 $3,421
Lacrosse $4,814 $1,939

Last week’s report also found that, while women’s volleyball and women’s gymnastics bring in more revenue than their male counterparts – and the NCAA thus spends more money to stage the women’s version of those tournaments – the student-athlete spending was far more balanced:

Men’s Championship Women’s Championship
Gymnastics $1,489 $2,050
Volleyball $3,590 $3,970

While KHF found that the NCAA has divided sports into three categories based on their perceived ability to produce revenue, “there appears to be no formal or consistent definition of these categories, and no process or mechanism for either reviewing a championship’s assignment or moving a championship from one category to another,” the report said.

The NCAA isn’t giving women’s sports the same opportunity to generate revenue

Because the disparate budgets play a role in how much is spent on branding, marketing, and promotion, the result is that the women’s tournaments aren’t provided the same chance to produce revenue.

For example, in 2019, the NCAA spent approximately $53,211 on general promotion for the men’s Division I lacrosse tournament compared to $17,396 for the women. The report detailed examples of billboards and TV promotion of the men’s tournament, while the women’s tournament didn’t have any comparable marketing.

The report also explained the way disparate spending impacts the growth potential of the women’s tournaments:

Championships in the earlier stages of growth and development—as are many of the women’s championships—are not considered by the NCAA to be its largest, most revenue-producing championships. Nevertheless, they deserve a fair shot to get there, which they cannot do without sufficient resources.

Even when the dollar figures weren’t as high, there were still discrepancies. For example, in 2019, the NCAA spent $3,586 on signage for the men’s water polo tournament compared to $1,960 for the women’s. “These differences can have a material impact on the student-athlete experience by giving one gender’s championship a more professional and exciting atmosphere than the other’s,” the report said.

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NCAA’s deal with CBS/Turner is partially to blame for gender inequality

Building off findings from the first report, last week’s report explained how the NCAA’s agreement with CBS/Turner encourages – and results in – uneven investment in women’s championships:

Because CBS/Turner controls the sponsorship rights for all 90 championships, but only the broadcast rights for the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, it is incentivized to focus its efforts on developing sponsorships for men’s basketball above all other sports.

As a result, there is no system in place to encourage sponsors that might be interested in investing in NCAA championships outside of men’s basketball. And for potential sponsors that have interest in any other championship, the structure of the joint sponsorship is often cost prohibitive.

Broadcast rights for women’s basketball and other NCAA championships are undervalued

While CBS/Turner currently owns broadcast rights for men’s basketball, ESPN owns the rights for 29 other championships (including women’s basketball).

In its first report, KHF commissioned media expert Ed Desser to conduct a valuation of the Division I women’s basketball rights. Desser estimated that, by 2025, the rights of that singular tournament will be worth “between $81 and $112 million… multiples more than ESPN currently pays annually to broadcast 29 championships.”

While Desser did not provide a valuation on the NCAA’s other 28 championships, his findings – and Tuesday’s report – concluded that the NCAA is losing out on substantial and crucial revenue that it could be earning.

The NCAA doesn’t have a system in place to evaluate or ensure gender equity

Nearly fifty years after Title IX was enacted, the NCAA doesn’t currently have the infrastructure necessary “to effectively monitor, assess, and ensure gender equity.” The report continued:

[I]nternal and external efforts to increase gender equity have fallen short because the NCAA does not have the systems in place (and the infrastructure to support them) to ensure transparency and accountability around gender equity.

In its recommendations, KHF suggests the NCAA increase the number of staff with expertise in Title IX and gender equity. 

NCAA decisions impact quality of competition

Tuesday’s report found multiple examples in which the NCAA made decisions that could impact the quality of the competition.

For example, in softball, teams that make it to the finals of the Women’s College World Series had to play nine games in seven days. In comparison, baseball teams played the same number of games, but in 11 days. “The abbreviated schedule for softball required some teams to play doubleheaders, sometimes late into the night, which affected the student-athletes’ health, safety, and performance,” the report said.

In ice hockey, the women’s tournament bracket is assembled with travel cost as a consideration, while the men’s is not. The report explained:

While the top four women’s teams are seeded “1-4 at the time of the selection call,” the remaining four teams will be paired with teams 1-4 according to their relative strength only if “such pairings do not result in air travel that otherwise could be avoided.”

The men’s tournament, by contrast, seeds and pairs teams to maximize “competitive equity, financial success and the likelihood of a playoff-type atmosphere at each regional site.”

Gender disparities decline when men and women compete side-by-side

In sports like track & field and cross country, where the men’s and women’s championships are held in the same days at the same location, there are almost no notable gender disparities.

“[W]e have seen that combining at least some portion of the men’s and women’s championship for a given sport enables more coordinated planning, increases equity in the goods and services, facilities, and resources provided at the championships and eliminates or reduces disparities between the ‘look and feel’ of the tournaments,'” the report said.

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