While we’re at it, let’s recognize how it uses and demeans women.
The NCAA softball tournament begins this weekend, and the audience for it on ESPN will average more than 1 million viewers per game, with the championship series apt to command almost twice that. And yet the competitors don’t have a place to shower, because the NCAA treats them as “less than an afterthought,” as one coach told The Washington Post.
The players are also peddled to corporate masters in noxiously sexist sponsorship agreements, as the Wall Street Journal illuminated recently: Basically, women’s championships are like a buy-one-get-one-free deal under the NCAA’s closely held mega-contract with CBS-Turner for the men’s basketball tournament.
As part of the previously unknown terms, when the NCAA gave CBS-Turner broad exclusive rights to the men’s hoops championship, it also gave it the corporate sponsorship sales for all 90 NCAA championships. Get this: CBS gets to keep the revenue from 18 so-called “NCAA corporate champions,” such as AT&T and Coca-Cola, which comes to about $200 million, as part of the basketball contract. Yet these companies get to advertise all over women’s basketball, softball, volleyball, gymnastics and other championships as a throw-in. As if they’re bonus swimsuit calendars you get for opening an account.
This creepy deal, made in 2016 by NCAA President Mark Emmert, is a raw one for every sport that isn’t men’s basketball, but it has an especially adverse effect on the women’s championships because they are some of fastest-growing events in the marketplace. Yet they are prevented from corporate deals and revenue in important categories because of the sponsor exclusivities held and controlled by CBS on the men’s contract they have been lashed to.
The problem here is not with the buyers. CBS is just being CBS, with an interest in protecting its men’s event and no incentive to help rival events grow on ESPN. And Coca-Cola is just being Coke, putting its logo on as many valuable properties as it can for its ad buys, welcoming whatever freebies or value-adds it can get.
The problem here is the seller. The NCAA is supposed to promote and protect athletes in 90 sports.
When Emmert was confronted with public outrage and congressional questions over the crummy disparities and lowball budgets that were so visible in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, he insisted, as he always does, that women’s sports don’t bring in any revenue and they are money losers. When really, it turns out, he had signed a deal that bound their feet.
Women’s softball has exploded as a TV property: Its ratings on ESPN have grown by 40 percent in the past couple of years. In basketball, the 2021 Women’s Final Four ratings were up 22 percent over 2019, and Stanford’s championship matchup with Arizona commanded an audience of 4 million.
But Emmert didn’t mention any of that value they offer Coca-Cola and AT&T — value the NCAA presold in those umbrella deals with CBS that “dramatically restrict women’s exposure and investment,” according to a person in advertising who is familiar with them.
Congressional leaders on NCAA issues such as Murphy and Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) ought to ask Emmert what else he hasn’t disclosed. Better yet, make him produce the CBS contract and sponsor deals, which no one can seem to get because the NCAA has fought hard to keep them under seal in the many lawsuits over ripping off athletes’ name, image and likeness rights.
How is it acceptable that the NCAA, whose member schools accept vast amounts of public funding, can keep its dealings secret? How can Murphy and Trahan or anyone else craft legislation to reform that bent old body as long as it’s allowed to practice secrecy as well as piracy?
One of the most troubling aspects of the NCAA’s serial discounting of women at the top level is that the message and practice leach down to individual schools. Athletic department accountings are notoriously opaque, and revenue credit and budgets are heavily slanted toward the men’s side. Connecticut women’s basketball is told it runs a deficit. If so, that’s only because the accountant wanted to write it down that way. What portion of arena sponsorships, sweatshirt sales and donor beneficence attributable to Geno Auriemma’s iconic program are unassigned or uncredited?
History shows the NCAA reforms only at the blunt end of a gavel. Not until Ed O’Bannon won his judgment in court and pried back his name, image and likeness rights did the NCAA stop thieving from students. Only then did Congress take notice of the issue that O’Bannon and other advocates had been screaming about for years. Female coaches and athletes should organize a similar legal-legislative effort.
If I’m a coach or athlete in a women’s sport in the NCAA, the first thing I do is get a good lawyer. The second thing I do is tell my lawyer to start raising hell with the NCAA Board of Governors over signing off on these deals. The third thing I do is ask my school to account for how it credits my program on licensing, sponsorships, concession sales, donor giving, share of media rights and other revenue.
And the last thing I do, if I don’t get satisfactory answers to those requests, is sue every pair of 32-inseams in sight, starting with Emmert.