New Report Says The NCAA Doesn’t Value Women’s Sports

In other words, lawyers and consultants were paid thousands (millions?) to tell us what we already know.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

A new report released this week confirmed that fifty years after Title IX, college sports are still sexist. Shocking, I know. The report, commissioned by the NCAA, was completed by law firm Kaplan, Hecker and Fink at what must have been great expense, and presented with the gravity of an earth-shattering revelation. 

“A Report Found The NCAA Undervalues Women’s Basketball, Prioritizes Men’s Teams,” read one headline. “NCAA undervalues women’s basketball by millions, report says,” read another. To anyone with even a peripheral interest in the women’s game (or anyone who’s read this column), those almost read like they could have been published by the Onion. The only appropriate response to presenting as newsworthy something that has been so obvious for so long is laughter.

But why listen to the people who have been part of the game for decades when you can listen to suits who shroud straightforward observations in a graph-laden costume of transcendent objectivity? It’s true that the report includes some useful details about the multitudinous ways in which the NCAA maligns women’s sports (ones that I maintain NCAA staffers probably could have pieced together themselves without the assistance of lawyers whose fee probably exceeded the budget of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, but I digress). It repeatedly indicts the NCAA for approaching women’s college basketball as a losing financial proposition without any evidence to back that assertion — an approach discussed in this column by sociologist Rachel Allison.

The reality, as shown in the report, is that while women’s college basketball is ignored internally because it supposedly has no chance of making enough money to be relevant (a fact that really shouldn’t matter given the NCAA’s mission, but that’s a whole other issue), the way the NCAA does business had effectively made it impossible for women’s college basketball programs to ever challenge that assumption. CBS/Turner, for example, owns the broadcast rights to the men’s college basketball tournament — as well as the corporate sponsorship rights for all 90 NCAA championships.

sylvia fowles lsu
courtesy NCAA

As a result, any company who wants to sponsor a single NCAA championship — like the women’s college basketball tournament — has to buy into all 90 championships, including the considerably pricier men’s tournament. CBS, in turn, is highly incentivized to funnel all that sponsorship campaigning and marketing work towards the men’s tournament, since it’s the only one they broadcast. In that context, any other championship is going to be operating at a disadvantage.

It’s just one of a number of alarming but not surprising details within the report — details that, were any of the women’s basketball naysayers to pay attention, would provide an ironclad rebuttal to the persistent whining about how “people just don’t watch women’s basketball and it’s a free market,” etc.

America is not a free market. It’s regulated, and by and large regulated by people who already have enormous amounts of money and power — that’s one reason why it’s so unfair. The NCAA has long been functioning as a monopoly that breaks even those permissive antitrust laws; acting as though its valuation of women’s sports has been determined by some mythic free market ignores that the NCAA literally is the market. They have no competition when it comes to marketing women’s sports. 

That’s why the report’s assessment of the undervaluation of women’s college basketball by millions of dollars is sort of funny: it’s impossible to know, because the only people who determine the value of women’s sports — the NCAA and the two broadcast networks it works with — don’t value it at all.

Once that changes — if that changes — everything will look totally different.