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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Women’s Game Continues to Thrive Despite NCAA’s Ongoing Troubles

  • The Final Four hasn’t even tipped off, but this year’s women’s tournament is already the most successful yet.
  • That achievement comes despite decades of structural inequities, some of which still exist today.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The women’s Final Four doesn’t tip off until Friday night. But it’s already the most successful by every measurable metric, from skyrocketing ticket prices to multiple ratings records.

Just look at Monday night’s Elite Eight game between Iowa and LSU, a rematch of the 2023 championship, which averaged a whopping 12.3 million viewers on ESPN platforms. It was the most-watched women’s college basketball game in recorded history; the most-watched college hoops matchup ESPN has ever broadcast, men’s or women’s; and the most-watched women’s game at any level in nearly 30 years

Friday night’s doubleheader will feature perhaps the most highly anticipated women’s slate in history. Underdog NC State will face off against undefeated South Carolina at 7:30 p.m. ET. Then, blueblood UConn and Paige Bueckers will take on the indescribable Caitlin Clark (above) and Iowa. Experts are predicting that the women’s Final Four will shatter last year’s impressive records, and that the championship game could rival—or perhaps even surpass—the ratings for the men’s tournament. March Madness ticket prices are already higher in Cleveland than they are in Phoenix.

What makes all that glitz even more impressive: The women’s tournament has been this successful despite decades of being held back by structural inequities, some of which still continue to this day. In 2021 the NCAA came under fire for its second-class treatment of the women’s tournament. The governing body overhauled the event between then and now: finally adding March Madness branding and inking a $920 million media contract with ESPN (valuing the women’s tournament at $65 million per year), among other changes. 

Or so we thought. 

The success of this women’s tournament has taken place against the backdrop of more easily avoidable, embarrassing, and even dangerous logistical issues. The NCAA allowed the entire Sweet 16 to be played in Portland with an inaccurate three-point line, committed multiple referee snafus, and put the Utah women’s basketball team in a hotel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where the players experienced multiple racial attacks as a result. No matter how many changes the NCAA makes, it still can’t seem to get the women’s tournament right.

Meanwhile, some of the structural issues remain. The corporate partner program still values the men’s tournament over the women’s. And the women’s tournament still doesn’t have a “units” prize money system (although that could be coming). 

And yet, women’s college basketball continues to thrive.

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