This year’s women’s March Madness may look a little different in a familiar way. For the first time ever, the women’s NCAA tournament will have a full 68 teams competing, just like the men’s tournament. This will also be the first year that the women’s players will receive gift bags identical to the men’s, the women’s tournament will hire extra employees to have a staff size similar to the men’s tournament, and the women’s tournament referees will be paid the same amount as the men’s tournament referees.
“I think it’s really important to note that the work is not done,” said Nina King, the Chair of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee. “We will continue to make sure that we enhance the women’s championship and make sure that it is the very best women’s sporting event in our country.”
This is the first year the women’s NCAA tournament will receive similar support as the men’s , which fans, teams and players alike have been demanding for years. The biggest change was the inclusion of a women’s First Four and expanding the total number of competing teams, giving more women’s teams the chance to qualify for the tournament.
“It’s really exciting being back to normal [with the fans] and then with all the new firsts,” said King. “Having the same number of participation opportunities was really a critical priority, and I think we’re all just really grateful that we have arrived at this moment.”
While the demand for change in women’s sports has always been there, attention from the public has not, with most of the fans’ attention on the men’s tournament each year. However, last year, more women’s players started calling out the stark differences between the two tournaments on social media.
One TikTok by Sedona Prince, a forward for the Oregon Ducks, showing the extreme differences between the women’s and men’s facilities at the tournament last year went viral on both TikTok and Twitter. In a few days, it gathered more than 13 million views and attracted the attention of big names like N.B.A star Steph Curry. After her video went viral, more pressure was placed on the N.C.A.A. to take a stand and address the inequalities between the two tournaments, which clearly favored the men’s competition. As a result, the NCAA launched an investigation into the inequalities between the men’s and women’s tournaments and released a report with a plan to create equality between the two tournaments.
“If that video got one-twentieth of the amount of views it did, who knows,” said Sedona Prince in an interview with the New York Times. “There might not have been an investigation in the first place, so that’s disappointing. But now that the NCAA has taken some responsibility for what it did, it’s cool to see. Hopefully in this tournament, we’ll see a lot of things have changed.”
And, many of the players have seen and acknowledged the changes in this year’s tournament so far, from the small things like similar quality of transportation and lodging for both leagues to the big things like the increase to a full 68 team tournament.
“You can tell that the NCAA is trying to make the right steps into becoming more equal and getting more support and more views for the women’s game, which is very much appreciated,” said Faith Masonius, a guard-forward for the Maryland Terrapins. “Hopefully, it will just get better and better each year, but we definitely acknowledge the changes that are being made and appreciate them.”
While the changes directly impact the players and their experience while competing in the tournament, they also encourage fans to invest more time watching the women’s league and businesses to invest more resources into women’s sports.
“It’s putting more weight towards the women’s game and seeing more and more fans come out and more support, you know, that’s amazing to see,” said Katie Benzan, a guard for the Maryland Terrapins. “And hopefully the NCAA sees the opportunity for women’s basketball to grow the game even more.”
With the success of this year’s women’s tournament and bracket challenges, the attention and support for women’s sports is definitely growing. Major sports companies like ESPN, which had 1.5 million women’s Tournament Challenge brackets made this year, have seen the shift in attention to women’s sports and are making efforts to cater to that audience (ESPN will be launching a WNBA. fantasy app for this upcoming season next month, the first company to create a fantasy league for a professional women’s sports league). While these are important strides being made by the NCAA, ESPN and others to grow the world of women’s sports, there is still much more that needs to be done.
“I think as women and as part of a minority group, we’ve taken great steps forward but definitely there are more steps to take,” said Benzan. “We’re proud to be women’s basketball players, you know, and we’re proud to show our game.”