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Does it matter that the women’s NCAA tournament is now ‘March Madness’?

Last week, the NCAA announced that the “March Madness” slogan will extend to the women’s basketball tournament. Is this a mere descriptive distinction without a difference? Or, will being part of “March Madness” matter for women’s college hoops?

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Final Four - Championship
The Stanford Cardinal celebrate winning the 2021 national championship.
Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

“Basketball is basketball.” Or, so the saying goes.

Of course, in the United States, basketball has meant “men’s basketball.” Basketball played by women always has included the gendered qualifier “women,” differentiating women playing the game as different from, and too often less than, the “regular” basketball played by men.

In extension, college basketball’s “March Madness” long has been used solely to describe and market the men’s NCAA tournament. The exclusion of the women’s tournament from the popular phrase signaled its status as a second class, presumably lesser sporting entertainment product.

During the 2021 NCAA tournaments, these cultural distinctions were made materially evident. While men’s teams enjoyed all the accoutrements traditionally associated with advancing to the tournament — from top-notch swag to high-quality food to first-rate facilities — such resources were (severely) rationed for women’s teams.

After the NCAA was forced to rectify the situation, it subsequently hired an outside firm, Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, to undertake a broader gender equity review.

One such recommendation from their report, which was released in August, recently was officially enacted — extending the “March Madness” moniker to the women’s tournament. (It is worth noting that the official @marchmadness Twitter page has yet to be updated and continued to post only about men’s college basketball.)

According to Lisa Campos, athletics director at UT San Antonio and the chair of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee:

This is just the start when it comes to improving gender equity in the way the two Division I basketball championships are conducted. ... Adding the March Madness trademark to the Division I women’s basketball championship will enhance the development and public perception of the sport.

Yet, will this semantic shift really matter? Can we trust the NCAA to truly treat women college hoopers equitably?

Why it might matter for women’s basketball

In addition to including women’s basketball under the “March Madness” promotional umbrella, the NCAA announced that it will use a different budgeting plan for the two tournaments, one that is no longer based on the budgets from the previous season.

While it remains to be seen if this new plan will result in significantly more financial resources for the women’s tournament, an increased material investment in women’s basketball can have a much greater impact on the tournament experience for women’s teams than the extension of the “March Madness” label.

The equity report also suggested that both Final Fours be held at a shared, single site. Because sites for both tournaments have been determined through 2026, this change would not occur until 2027. Nina King, athletics director at Duke and chair of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, expressed:

We are committed to continuing discussion about the concept of conducting both the Women’s and Men’s Final Fours in the same city in the next bid cycle for each of these premier NCAA Championships. Finding ways to address the gender equity issues that have come to exist through the years between the Division I Women’s and Men’s Basketball Championships is a priority, and we are dedicated to making impactful changes.

In short, this change is not necessarily about women’s basketball being part of “March Madness.” It is about how including women’s basketball within the “March Madness” designation can encourage the women’s tournament to be seen equally and treated equitably in terms of the provisioning of resources.

Why it might matter for individual athletes

The new name, image and likeness (NIL) regulations, in combination with “March Madness” now including women’s basketball, could make a difference for individual student athletes.

The NIL agreements struck by athletes primarily are promotional deals, with athletes using their various social media platforms to advertise the brands with which they have signed contracts.

Allowing women’s basketball players to use the language of “March Madness” and any related hash tags when promoting products or companies could allow them to increase their visibility and profitability.

A successful tournament run is the best opportunity for an athlete, especially one who does not play for a traditional power, to make a name for herself and, in turn, make some more money for herself. Being under the banner of “March Madness” should further facilitate her ability to turn her athletic exploits into financial opportunities.

Why did the NCAA agree to make this change?

Based on an extensive track record, the NCAA has not earned the benefit of the doubt.

It, therefore, it is necessary to ask why the NCAA was motivated to make this move, outside of the benefits of positive publicity.

With establishment of the G League Ignite and Overtime Elite, and with the possible end of the one-and-done rule, men’s college basketball is facing a period of greater uncertainty. Will these other options dilute men’s college hoops? Can the men’s tournament generate as much excitement if the sport’s most elite talents are not suiting up for college squads?

Women’s college hoops, in contrast, appears to be on the upswing.

While the dominance of UConn long was levied as a criticism of women’s college basketball, the Huskies no longer stand as the singular, impenetrable powerhouse. Instead, the sport features a number of equally elite teams all capable of contending for the national championship.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Women’s Arizona at Stanford
Stanford and Arizona advanced to the NCAAW championship game last year.
Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If last year’s tournament is any indication — from the freshman showcases of UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark to Aari McDonald and Arizona’s underdog run to the title game to Stanford surviving a trying season before achieving the ultimate triumph for head coach Tara VanDerveer — we can continue to expect the women’s tournament to generate excitement that rivals, if not exceeds, the men’s tournament.

The NCAA witnessed this. Quite possibly, extending “March Madness” to the women’s tournament is about benefitting the “March Madness” brand as much as it is about boosting the women’s tournament.