Sports

Even In A Pandemic, The NCAA Made It Harder To Cheer On Female Athletes

With a new college athletic season underway, no one must be happier to turn the page on the 2020-21 calendar than the NCAA itself. Last season, as colleges struggled to play through the pandemic, a series of debates around gender equity spilled out into the open. First there were the woefully inadequate provisions at the women’s college basketball tournament, which drew the ire of figures ranging from NBA star Stephen Curry to 37 members of Congress. Then there were the nonexistent locker rooms and play-by-play announcers in the early rounds of the Division I women’s volleyball tournament, and the practices staged on makeshift “courts” that were criticized for their composition. And at the Women’s College World Series, competitors once again played double-headers in a stadium without on-site showers.

Predictably, a firestorm swirled after the college basketball national championships — hardly the first for the organization — and the NCAA followed a tried-and-true method: calling a lawyer. The first batch of findings from the inquiry into inequities in championship events was released earlier this month, and focused specifically on Division I men’s and women’s basketball. “While there is near universal support for treating student-athletes equitably,” the report read, “there unfortunately is also deep distrust in the NCAA’s willingness and ability to make the necessary changes to achieve that goal.”

College basketball’s tournament bubbles represented the perfect environments through which to view the lack of institutional awareness and support for women’s athletics. These were blank canvases that could be thoroughly tailored to the needs of their participants, and yet the NCAA treated its male and female athletes completely differently. In fact, there was a roughly $35 million difference in spending at the two tournaments, which touched everything from branding to digital media coverage to gifts to food to COVID-19 tests.

“It’s incredible that — even if it were for the reason of preserving the status quo — people at NCAA HQ weren’t thinking about, ‘Well, if we’re using the educational opportunities of college sports, and also the gender equity of college sports as part of the defense of the enterprise, we at least better get the gender equity part right,’” said Victoria Jackson, a former national champion runner and current professor of sports history at Arizona State University. “It really exposed this critique we have that you throw up this, like, Title IX shield and say, ‘Hey, what about the women!?’ It’s never really from a position of actually caring about gender equity.”

Along with facilities and provisions afforded to its athletes, another way to examine NCAA support of gender equity is to consider how the organization showcased its athletes in front of fans at championship events. Though different sports played by both men and women naturally attract different levels of fan interest, restrictions in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic could have been expected to be reasonably similar. But here, too, the NCAA came under fire. 

Bella Bauman, a beach volleyball player for Grand Canyon University, called out the organization in April for its decision to prohibit fans and limit even team members at the outdoor championship, held in Alabama — just a week after the Crimson Tide spring football game drew more than 47,000 fans in the same state. “Disappointed but not surprised,” her TikTok caption read. 

Greg Johnson, NCAA associate director of communications, wrote in an email that “social distancing, mask mandates, the size of the venue where competition is being played in” were all  factors in capacity decisions. “The local/county/state COVID-19 mandates and protocols are different in each state all around the country,” he wrote. “Some counties in the same state had different mandates and protocols.”

The NCAA eventually walked back its protocol for the beach volleyball tournament, allowing around 700 spectators each day to accommodate players’ family and friends — still far short of the 9,449 in attendance for the 2019 title match at the same site. As the academic year came to an end, more NCAA championship events did return to 100 percent capacity. But even then, there were still significant disparities between men’s and women’s events.

FiveThirtyEight looked at the 26 Division I-only sports — split equally at 13 apiece for men and women — and narrowed them down to the championships held separately for men and women, eliminating women’s rowing because of the lack of attendance data. We then compared championship attendance during the pandemic-limited 2020-21 season with the regularly scheduled 2018-19 season. Women’s championship finals averaged a capacity of 6,525 spectators in 2020-21, while men’s finals averaged a capacity of 15,071.

Fewer fans could watch women win their NCAA titles

Capacity at 2020-21 NCAA championship events for 13 Division I sports along with attendance at the same events in 2018-19 and the difference

Women
Sport Location 2020-21
Capacity
2018-19
attendance
difference
Softball Oklahoma City 12,300 8,373 +46.90%
Basketball San Antonio 12,000 20,127 -40.38
Lacrosse Towson, Md. 5,100 9,433 -45.93
Soccer Cary, N.C. 5,000 9,591 -47.87
Field hockey Chapel Hill, N.C. 450 1,152 -60.94
Volleyball Omaha, Neb. 4,300 16,290 -73.60
Men
Sport Location 2020-21
Capacity
2018-19
attendance
difference
Lacrosse East Hartford, Conn. 40,000 31,528 +26.87%
Baseball Omaha, Neb. 24,000 22,137 +8.42
Soccer Cary, N.C. 5,000 8,413 -40.57
Football (FCS) Frisco, Texas 10,000 17,866 -44.03
Ice hockey Pittsburgh 4,900 13,624 -64.03
Basketball Indianapolis 17,500 72,062 -75.72
Wrestling St. Louis 4,100 18,950 -78.36

Sources: NCAA, various news outlets

Attendance of the Division I men’s basketball national final between Gonzaga and Baylor at Lucas Oil Stadium was limited to 25 percent capacity, or 7,923 fans, according to the NCAA. But the DI women’s championship game between Stanford and Arizona in the Alamodome was held to 17 percent capacity, or 3,165 spectators — 60 percent fewer fans than the men’s final. And that restriction to the women’s final came in Texas, a state infamous for its lack of COVID-19 restrictions.

Even larger attendance splits were seen in basketball at the Division II level. While 1,080 fans descended on the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana, for the men’s basketball final, public ticket sales weren’t allowed for the women’s DII championship game, which was held in a much smaller venue at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio. Only 72 spectators were able to attend.

In baseball and softball, both the College World Series and Women’s College World Series allowed full capacity — and both events set attendance records. (Of course, the venue for the CWS holds almost twice as many fans as the WCWS venue to begin with.) Even with one of its teams forced to forfeit because of a COVID-19 outbreak, the CWS still welcomed fans to the stands, setting all-time records for total attendance (361,711), finals attendance (72,226) and championship-deciding-game attendance (24,052). 

Some of the attendance and viewership disparities are of course due to imbalanced marketing, which Jackson said must be recalibrated.

The Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Bachman uncovered in May that the contract struck between the NCAA and CBS-Turner for the men’s basketball tournament effectively binds the hands of all 90 NCAA championships in terms of sponsorships. Corporate sponsorship sales for every NCAA championship were included in the NCAA’s TV rights deal with CBS and Turner, which prevents fast-growing sports like women’s basketball from negotiating separate corporate deals. 

The NCAA gender equity review found that the ESPN-owned TV rights package that includes the women’s college basketball tournament and some two dozen other NCAA championship events — and will cost the network $34 million annually — grossly undervalues women’s basketball. The report found that the women’s college basketball tournament alone will be worth between $81 million and $112 million annually beginning in 2025. By then, the women’s tournament should be able to use the March Madness branding, which has been exclusive to the men’s side of the sport.

2021 was the first time that the entire women’s college basketball tournament was shown on national television. The women’s final was carried on ESPN, while the final of the men’s college basketball tournament was seen on CBS, America’s most-watched network for more than a decade. Even the Division II men’s national championship game was televised by CBS. Division I wrestling was televised by ESPN; women’s volleyball, however, was assigned to ESPN2. 

ESPN and ESPN2 were both used for the CWS and WCWS, but all three of the softball final series games were on ESPN, while two of the three games in the baseball final series were on ESPN2. The baseball games were all in prime time; though viewership of the Women’s College World Series spiked by 37 percent relative to 2019, the deciding final game of the tournament was held on a Thursday afternoon. 

The only other instance of the women’s side of a sport receiving top billing over the men’s side was in gymnastics; the men’s final was shown on the Big Ten Network while the women’s final was televised by ABC

Gymnastics was also the only sport competed at the same level for women and men in which attendance at the men’s championship was limited to just friends and family but public tickets were sold for the women’s championship. 

“There isn’t a gender component for attendance to NCAA championships,” Johnson assured FiveThirtyEight in an email. “The attendance is set by each championship sports committee that oversees a specific championship. These committees use several factors in determining attendance at the venue where competition will take place.”

No one, of course, is arguing that local context should not be considered when enacting attendance protocols, or that these determinations aren’t being guided by current scientific understandings of the pandemic. However, the NCAA is duty-bound to make decisions in the best interest of its approved varsity sports, which presumably means making sometimes difficult choices to grow these opportunities for future competitors.

“It’s very hard. I almost want to give people in positions of power a pass for the pandemic,” Jackson said. “But it should have already been established that NCAA championships needed to have gender equity as one of their guiding principles.”

A week and a half before Oregon’s Sedona Prince exposed a weight room fit for a retirement community at the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament, the NCAA had made a public relations show of its support for female athletes on International Women’s Day. Within months, the NCAA was on the phone with lawyers and playing Whac-A-Mole with its blunders. Corrections matter little when they don’t result in lasting change; will the 2021-22 season look meaningfully different?

“There’s an opportunity that the pandemic exposed,” Jackson said. “We’re not thinking about equity, and it makes us vulnerable to disparities. We’ve got to learn from this experience, because there’s an opportunity and a lesson here to do better.”



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