March Sadness: Will Men’s Basketball Forever Overshadow Women’s Basketball?

Since sports have been a form of entertainment, men’s sports have received more support, resources, and viewership. This article highlights that since women’s basketball has started to overshadow the popularity of select men’s sports, platforms like ESPN make the streaming more expensive to exclude women from the national stage.

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Since the 2022 March Madness season, women’s college basketball has soared to an unprecedented level of popularity. This rise can be greatly attributed to teams like UConn, LSU, and Iowa State, which are home to star guard Paige Bueckers, forward Angel Reese, and guard Caitlin Clark, respectively. These players have accumulated a large fan base and have driven women’s NCAA viewership up by 103 percent compared to 2022. This soar began when Clark became a sensation in her senior year for her high scoring and breaking of Kelsey Plum’s all-time NCAA scoring record of 3,527. Clark greatly contributed to the rise of the sellout of women’s games when her fanbase started selling out both her home and away games. But even more notably, the mishandling of women’s sports was highlighted in 2021 and has since brought more visibility to women’s basketball. In 2021, Sedona Prince, a player for the University of Oregon’s women’s basketball team, made a video publicizing the meager weight rack provided for training at the women’s NCAA tournament, in contrast to the stacked rack provided for the men’s event. 

The increased viewership of women’s games prompted an investigation into the discrepancies between men’s and women’s sports in the NCAA, while also putting the NCAA under fire. Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, inspired by Prince’s video, created the Kaplan Report. This report was a deep dive into the major inequalities between the NCAA facilities for men’s and women’s basketball, revealing how the 2019 men’s basketball budget was double that of the women’s. What initially started as an extensive and eye-opening report on disparities between men’s and women’s Division 1 basketball extended into a larger movement of awareness. The executive summary from the Kaplan Report highlighted how “the NCAA, for example, did not sponsor a championship for women’s basketball, or any other women’s sport, until 1982—more than 75 years after the association was founded. And even then, it opposed (ultimately unsuccessfully) the application of Title IX—the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in educational programs and activities receiving federal funds.” 

Yet even more saddening, the undeniable statistics representing women’s basketball’s popularity have fallen on deaf ears. ESPN and the NCAA signed a new $920 million deal effective on September 1, 2024, with women’s basketball being the satin ribbon tying this deal together. In essence, the deal made almost all of March Madness require a cable subscription since games would be aired exclusively on ESPN’s cable channels. This means that the average viewer could pay anywhere from $40 to $80 per month to watch NCAA basketball, depending on their service of choice. While one can view NCAA championships on any platform that carries ABC, the increasingly expensive cost of being a fan accentuates how ESPN and the NCAA have exploited the increased viewership of March Madness, induced by the rising female stars. Sling, for example, appears to have the cheapest streaming rate of $20 for the first month and $40 thereafter, when, in reality, a more expensive plan is required to watch the NCAA games. The Sling Orange + Blue plan, in actuality, is both more expensive and more accommodating for access to the women’s March Madness games. Moreover, accessing March Madness games through ESPN directly has become more challenging, especially for viewers without cable. The typical ESPN+ package costs $10.99 per month, but to gain full streaming access without cable, ESPN requires an additional $77 per month subscription to Hulu + Live TV. As viewers are becoming increasingly aware of these high costs, rushing to participate in the rising popularity of women’s basketball, one can’t help but notice how women have been excluded from the national religion of the championship season up until now. Particularly in light of the recent ESPN and NCAA deal, the new exclusivity of streaming NCAA tournaments is an extreme coincidence, considering the women’s basketball buildup over the last three years. 

However, financial barriers haven’t deterred viewership, as the 2023 Iowa State vs. LSU women’s game sported 9.9 million views, while the recent 2024 rematch had 12.3 million views. This mark was beaten a few days later by the Iowa State vs. UConn Final Four game, which sported an impressive 14.2 million views. This is not only the most viewed game for a women’s March Madness tournament, but it is also one of the most viewed games in American sports history, outside of the NFL. While ESPN’s capitalization on such popularity is logical, Prince’s weight rack demonstrated that the new profit being brought in through women’s basketball was not being re-inserted into the women’s game. Moreover, it was not until the beginning of the 2022 season that the Women’s NCAA was even allowed to use the March Madness marketing. This meant that previously, the series of women’s championship games held every March, could not be advertised as part of the March Madness tournament. To profit off the success of athletes like Clark, who announced on February 29 that she would be entering the WNBA draft, is hypocritical to say the least, considering a mere two years ago she would’ve been unable to participate in March Madness. 

While this is not to discredit the financial decisions made to boost resources poured into athletic partnerships and related advertising, a question one might ask is why men's sports perpetually overshadow women’s sports in the American sporting religion. Most people, even non-sports fans, are familiar with basketball great LeBron James and his role as a famous NBA player. While it may not be as commonly known that he is the all-time leading scorer in the NBA, the name Diana Taurasi is far less popular, despite her similarly being the all-time leading scorer in the WNBA. Sadly, with this new eight-year ESPN and NCAA deal, the fame of rising female athletes will remain monopolized. To make matters worse, before this deal, the NCAA had a contract that valued television rights for women’s basketball at $6 million a year, when the Kaplan Report predicted that the contract to broadcast women’s basketball tournaments would be worth $85 million a year by 2025.

Despite the high cost of watching these rising stars in women’s basketball, it is important to acknowledge the benefits of the new ESPN and NCAA partnership. ESPN top executive Burke Magnus noted that their financial restructuring will “be another leap for women’s basketball deeper into the regular season.” The increasing awareness should not be minimized either, as this deal also helps create consistent visibility as all games, except select NFL and NBA games, are broadcasted from America’s largest sports streaming platform—ESPN. Yet as Daniel Kirschner, CEO of Greenfly, a company meant to stimulate a league’s social media presence, theorized, ESPN’s usage will ultimately be elevated as they further promote women’s basketball and other women’s sports. By acknowledging the ultimate growth women’s sports provide the streaming platform, ESPN has made it evident that they view women’s athletics as a form of entertainment. Comparatively, men’s athletics has such a massive culture that watching men’s sports is, quite frankly, its own religion and sport.

This all points to exactly how essential it is that viewers remain consistent to prevent this soar in women’s basketball from solely being associated with current stars. By pinning platforms like ESPN, and organizations like the NCAA, against a wall, the exacerbation of price tags and minimal recognition for women’s sports can be prevented from further infecting the NCAA.