One year after weight room controversy, NCAA says March Madness will be more equitable

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Nearly a year ago, Oregon forward Sedona Prince took to Twitter to expose some of the more glaring inequities between the men’s and women’s NCAA Basketball Tournaments — an unwelcome viral moment for the organization and one that it is still responding to.

The NCAA has made major changes to its women’s basketball tournament. Many of the changes have been relatively easy to do, such as expanding the tournament to 68 teams and using the phrase “March Madness” — once limited to the men’s tourney — in branding.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: It’s not just the weight rooms. All of the disparities from the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament

“This year there will be numerous and notable enhancements to the championship,” said Lynn Holzman, the NCAA vice president of women’s basketball. “What those have translated to is an enhanced women’s basketball student-athlete experience and fan experience.”

Prince was happy to hear it.

“Making those changes is incredible and I hope it continues to be that way, and not just from a massive scandal, and a player exposing them on a national stage,” she told The Associated Press. “Things shouldn’t be fixed that way. ”

There is still a lot of work to do, such as TV rights and revenue disbursement, just two of the issues outlined in a blistering report released last summer that looked into the inequities. The differences between the two tournaments were stark.

The NCAA said it has made a major effort to make the two tournaments more equitable, on and off the court. While the organization wouldn’t give an exact dollar amount, it did say it has spent millions more on the women’s tournament this year, with the Final Four set for Minneapolis. The men’s Final Four is in New Orleans.

“The zero-based budgeting exercise mentioned in the gender-equity report has been very detailed and time-consuming in a good way,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA senior vice president of basketball. “We’ve taken every budget line for men’s and women’s basketball championships and compared and contrasted them. Where there have been discrepancies, we’ve had significant discussions about the equity standpoint. In many cases, they’ve been adjusted to the tune of millions of dollars.”

Starting in the regional rounds, which are played at neutral sites after earlier rounds are hosted by higher seeds, there will be “March Madness” logos on the courts instead of “Women’s Basketball.” The Final Four logos will be gender specific, too.

Other changes include:

  • Gifts for each team will be the same. In previous years, while they were comparable in value, they were packaged and presented differently.
  • Fan events at the Women’s Final Four have been expanded to be more similar to the men, including having an open practice the day before the championship game.
  • Officials are being paid the same at both tournaments.

The NCAA has plans for changes next year. They hope to move the selection show back to its Monday night slot after shifting it to Sunday this year, where there is the potential for it to get dwarfed by the men’s show. The NCAA also hopes to have a neutral site for its opening round play-in games, similar to the men’s event in Dayton, Ohio.

Three things that were brought to light last year by Prince’s video and other social media posts were disparities in the lodging, food and weight rooms.

Organizers said most of those discrepancies occurred mostly because of the set-up of the tournaments, with both hosting every team in single cities amid the pandemic instead of at sites across the nation. Still, the NCAA said it would ensure both tournaments will have equitable hotels and food this year.

Earlier this year, the NCAA announced it would not combine the two Final Fours, a recommendation from the Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP report. There are other possibilities, including potentially moving one of the two to a different weekend.

MORE ON GENDER INEQUITY IN COLLEGE SPORTS: NCAA spends far less on women’s championships, hindering their growth potential

Looming for the women’s tourney is a full discussion — or new deal — for TV rights, the lifeblood for hundreds of schools. On the men’s side, CBS and Turner’s original contract with the NCAA was for 14 years at $10.8 billion ($770 million per year). They signed an eight-year extension in 2016 that gives them the rights through 2032, and the per-year average will jump to $1.1 billion beginning in 2025.

Currently, the women’s tournament is bundled with other championships when it comes to TV rights, and many wonder how much money it could fetch if it stood alone in negotiations. The current contract with ESPN is not up until 2024.

Giving women’s teams revenue for winning games in the tournament — which would be similar to the men’s tourney — is a topic that has not been explored.

“If you get more money when your men win than when your women are winning, then you have to care more about the men winning,” said North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart, the vice president of the Women’s Basketball Coaching Association. “It’s just financial optics things. Right?”

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”