It’s overtime. Six seconds left on the clock. The NC State University women’s basketball team trails Connecticut by three points. That’s when forward Jakia Brown-Turner made her move.

With a clean pass from senior guard Raina Perez, Brown-Turner got a good look at the basket, and she didn’t waste it. In one fluid move, Brown-Turner sent the basketball swishing through the net, prompting an explosion of celebration from her teammates and sending the game into a hard-fought double overtime.

It was a tough game for NC State, who were hoping to win it all this year after they broke into the Elite Eight. In the end, it was anyone’s game, thanks to the driving force of veteran Elissa Cunane and the talent of young sophomore Diamond Johnson. It simply wasn’t enough to overcome the Huskies.

Still, as the NC State men’s basketball program endures a slow, seemingly unending decline, the top-seeded women’s team is giving Wolfpack fans something to root for. In 2018, while the men were losing in the ACC quarterfinals, the women were making a run to the Sweet 16. They hope to stay on the rise.

There’s a lot of energy around the women’s team, as there always is around a team that’s winning. But despite their success, the players continue to be undervalued, underwatched, and unfairly treated.

A gender equality scandal in the NCAA

The differences between the men’s and women’s tournaments got a lot of attention last year as they played at the same time in two COVID bubbles: the men in Indianapolis and the women in San Antonio. Women’s players and coaches shared videos of their accommodations, which fell far short of the men’s. While male players were treated to a fully equipped weight room, buffet, and a shower of gifts, the women had a mostly empty workout room, prepackaged meals, and paltry gift bags.

“You could really compare amenities on a one-to-one basis, and that put into stark contrast how little the women’s tournament was cared about,” says Lindsay Gibbs, author of Power Plays, a newsletter about sexism in sports.

“Because the NCAA makes the majority of its money off the men’s tournament … all of its focus and energy was on the men’s tournament. The women’s tournament had to jump through hoops just to get approval [to play].”

This year, things haven’t changed much. The NCAA has made some cosmetic changes, including offering better perks to women, expanding the tournament from 64 to 68 teams, and allowing teams to use “March Madness” branding, but there are still systemic inequities.

“All of these [changes] are positive, I don’t want to diminish them,” Gibbs says. “But ultimately, I think there’s a lot more structural issues within the NCAA. There’s a long way to go. They solved the easiest problems to solve, but the real work is systemic, as it always is.”

Who’s watching?

In Raleigh, the conversation about basketball revolves around the men’s tournament: Who’s going to win? Would Duke beat out UNC? Wolfpack fans didn’t have much to cheer about this year. The former championship men’s team didn’t even qualify for the postseason—unsurprising, given they’ve failed to get into the tournament for the past four years and ended the regular season with an 11-21 record, the worst since 1993.

For most Pack fans, watching the tournament is an exercise in futility and has been for the past 30 years. Nostalgic alumni dream of the Pack’s glory days—the 1980s under Coach Jim Valvano, when a team of greats came from behind to win it all. Frustrated State fans console themselves with the fact that, well, at least the women’s team is doing well.

The fan conversation reflects the historic disparity between media coverage of men’s and women’s sports. In the world of television, men’s sports are the focus of 95 percent of stories, while women’s sports are the focus of just 5 percent, according to a 2019 study by the University of Southern California and Purdue University.

The study found similar disparities in social media posts and sports newsletters, which covered women only 9-10 percent of the time.

“Men’s sports—especially the ‘Big Three’ of basketball, football, and baseball—still receive the lion’s share of the coverage, whether in-season or out of season,” researchers state. “When a women’s sports story does appear, it is usually a case of ‘one and done,’ a single women’s sports story obscured by a cluster of men’s stories that precede it, follow it, and are longer in length.”

That pattern is especially apparent during the NCAA tournament. During a three-week span in 2019, ESPN’s SportsCenter ran 27 stories on the men’s tournament, for a total airtime of two hours and 13 minutes, according to the study. The women’s tournament was the focus of just two stories, for a total of three minutes and 43 seconds of coverage.

A nationwide sample of local TV stations found that stations aired 56 stories on the men’s tournament, for an hour and 14 minutes, compared to eight stories on the women’s, for only three minutes and 16 seconds.

Newspaper coverage is equally biased. In one week during last year’s Final Four, men received nearly twice the amount of newspaper coverage as women, according to an analysis done by Gibbs. Overall, men’s sports got 86.6 percent of coverage, while women’s sports got 13.4 percent of coverage.

Despite the lack of media coverage, the NC State women’s basketball team has a strong fan following. In the women’s league, NC State home games were among the top 10 most attended games during the 2021-22 season. In the men’s league, NC State ranked 27th in attendance.

The NC State women’s team also has no problem filling Reynolds Coliseum, which seats 5,500. On average, 85 percent of seats were filled during the women’s games, while only 61 percent of the seats at PNC Arena were filled during men’s games (although PNC is much bigger than Reynolds, seating more than 19,000).

During the Pack’s home games last month, “Reynolds [Coliseum] was absolutely packed, it was deafeningly loud,” Gibbs says. “The fans really love this team, they really support this team, and as a North Carolinian, it was thrilling to see.”

Camille Hobby, a junior who plays center for the team, echoed those sentiments in a pre–Sweet 16 press conference. She went on to say women’s games should get more airtime.

“We’ve seen in the past that when women’s games are on TV, people watch them. So more games need to be on TV. Not ESPN+, but ESPN,” she said. “Have us on there and give us a chance to perform and show that we’re great. That we’re some of the best athletes that there are, that there can be.”

Hobby said that the NCAA is doing a better job of being inclusive, but the changes they made are just the first step.

“Sometimes women’s sports don’t get the same respect as men’s,” she said. “This is a step, but I think there could still be more things in the future for us.”

Players Jakia Brown-Turner and Elissa Cunane also said that while the treatment of female athletes is improving, they expect even greater things in the future.

“The buzz around women’s basketball is growing, and it’s because people realize that we are full of talent,” Cunane said during a March 25 press conference. “I think in the future everyone just continuing to speak out and stand up for themselves is going to help us continue to move forward.”

A cycle of devaluation

When it comes to the women’s tournament, the NCAA has created what Gibbs calls “a cycle of devaluation.” Because the organization invests less money in women’s basketball, it makes less money from the sport. It then becomes easy to justify investing even less money in the future.

“[The women’s tournament] is not where the NCAA makes its money, because the NCAA has decided not to turn it into a money-making property,” Gibbs says. “[It has decided] not to give it the investment it deserves.”

Last year, the women’s championship game drew about 4.1 million viewers, an increase of 9 percent over the 2019 championship. The men’s championship game drew about 16.9 million viewers, a decrease of 8 percent from 2019. So while the men’s tournament did get more views, interest is decreasing, while interest in the women’s game is rising steadily.

In addition, while the men’s tournament drew four times the viewers as the women’s, its broadcasting contract is worth 20 times as much. The broadcast rights for the men’s tournament sold for $850 million last year, compared to the rights for the women’s tournament, which sold for $42 million.

“The proportions that we’re looking at are just completely out of whack,” Gibbs says. “Four million viewers for any television network is a lot these days. Just because it’s not 16 million doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. It’s been really sad to see this go on for so long.”

Sports media professionals estimate that the women’s basketball tournament alone will be worth $81 million to $112 million per year, starting in 2025, the first year after the NCAA’s current contract with ESPN expires.

“A new eight-year, $909 million [broadcasting] deal would be worth an average of about $114 million per year; a 10-year, $1.2 billion agreement would average $118 million per year,” states a gender equity analysis conducted by consulting firm Desser Sports Media.

The NCAA commissioned the report following last year’s gender inequity scandal, and the results were far from favorable. In addition to devaluing women’s basketball, the structure of the broadcasting contract discourages sponsorships and ads for the women’s tournament.

That lack of money at the top also trickles down, ultimately discouraging colleges and universities from investing in women’s basketball programs.

When a men’s basketball team makes the tournament, their college’s conference gets a payout from the NCAA. The more games the team wins, the bigger that payout is. Women’s teams, on the other hand, get nothing.

“So of course schools are gonna want to pour more money into their men’s programs than their women’s programs, because it makes them so much more money if their men’s team makes it to the tournament,” Gibbs says.

“These kinds of issues, that stem from the NCAA internally, devaluing and deprioritizing women’s basketball, these are the decisions that really trickle down and impact everything.” 

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