Women's Championship Game • Perspective
Dawn of an era: Staley and South Carolina now set the standard
Women's National Championship • Perspective
Dawn Staley was a great player. She might be an even better coach.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, true equity is about more than swag bags

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley speaks with an official during the first half of a college basketball game against Creighton in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Sunday, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley sees the future of women’s basketball with the keen eyes of a Hall of Fame point guard.

Much as she did during her college, Olympic and pro playing career, Staley is able to size up the entire field and spot openings to exploit with the goal of putting her team — in this case, her sport — in the best possible position.

As the NCAA trumpets strides in gender equity during this women’s tournament, Staley acknowledges the modest gains of letting women use the trademarked “March Madness” brand and providing players with gift bags as pricey as what the men are given. But she said significant progress won’t occur until the NCAA changes how it sells women’s broadcast rights and distributes revenue.

“The signage is nice. The branding is nice. The swag bags — all of that — that’s nice,” Staley said this week. “But let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of being treated like a sport. If we really want to invest in women and invest in our championship, now is the time. Now is the time for change because we’re as hot as we have been in a long time.”

Staley, 51, who has led her top-ranked Gamecocks to their fourth Final Four since 2015, including their march to the 2017 national championship, may be among the more soft-spoken coaches at the highest ranks of sports. But she cannot keep silent when she sees an injustice or something that just doesn’t feel right or seem fair.

The way the NCAA markets women’s basketball is among those things. And Staley has addressed her vision of the game’s next frontier throughout the postseason. She elaborated this week as South Carolina, which features national player of the year candidate Aliyah Boston and a smothering defense, prepared for Friday’s semifinal meeting with Louisville in Minneapolis.

Meaningful change starts, Staley believes, with the TV deal.

And it starts, in her view and that of several high-profile coaches, with the NCAA changing the way it sells broadcast rights in women’s basketball. Currently, broadcast rights for women’s basketball are bundled with all Division I sports except men’s basketball and football — an antiquated business model, Staley believes, that prevents women’s basketball from knowing its true worth. Who knows what a bidding war among networks might generate?

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Even the NCAA has acknowledged its bundling approach has undervalued the women’s game.

“I would like for women’s basketball to stand alone in securing a TV package.” Staley said. “We’re in high demand; we’re heavily watched. Our sport is at a place where it’s going to take off; it is taking off. We have missed opportunities to capitalize on revenue.”

Next, she argues, the NCAA must start distributing broadcast revenue for women’s programs the same way it does for men’s.

The NCAA uses a “performance-based” formula for disbursing more than $160 million in tournament revenue annually for success in the men’s tournament.

That money, doled out in “units” that escalate with each round, is awarded to each team’s conference, which, in turn, redistributes the proceeds to member schools.

But there’s no performance-based system for rewarding success in the women’s tournament. That disparity, for example, means the Connecticut women’s success in reaching this Final Four (the Huskies’ 14th consecutive) won’t enrich the Big East’s coffers as Villanova’s men will for reaching this year’s Final Four.

North Carolina Coach Courtney Banghart explained the fundamental inequity during her team’s play in the Greensboro Region.

“The units issue is a big deal,” Banghart said. “If I’m our athletic director and my university makes more money if my men’s team advances, I’m going to be at the men’s game and I’m going to invest more money in the men’s program because it’s basic mathematics. . . . Women get a pat on the back — ‘Thanks for doing a good job!’ There’s no financial incentive for our team to be great, right? That needs to change.”

Said Staley: “It’s a systemic cycle that keeps women down.”

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Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer pointed to the same inequities when asked about the NCAA’s steps toward gender equity during the Spokane Region’s final rounds.

“To really make changes, we have to have similar unit structure,” VanDerveer said. “I mean, I love the crowds. I love the signage. … The bottom line is, it’s a television package, and it’s a unit structure. When that happens, then we’ll know that it’s serious.”

Staley and other top women’s coaches stress that women’s basketball need not be underwritten by men’s basketball. Given the chance to market itself robustly, it can stand on its own. And it’s past time the NCAA let women’s basketball prove that networks (and streaming services) , corporate sponsors and fans are willing to pay for their product.

On an individual level, women’s college stars are second only to football players when it comes to cashing in on the new NCAA rules governing name, image and likeness.

Staley flexed similar muscle in the way she approached her contract negotiation with South Carolina last fall. Her baseline requirement: equal pay with the men’s coach (then Frank Martin). She hired a lawyer well-known to the university’s decision-makers to represent her.

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The result was a seven-year, $22.4 million extension that makes Staley among the highest-paid women’s basketball coaches.

The goal, as she explained, wasn’t to enrich her bank account but to set a benchmark for other schools’ investment in women’s basketball — and to send a message to all women about the importance of knowing their worth.

That message has resonated with her players.

“Coach Staley — what a queen, first of all!” Boston said when asked about Staley’s contract. “She has done so much for the game of basketball, so everything that she’s getting she deserves. And she deserves more.”

Point guard Destanni Henderson, an entrepreneur in her own right as founder of Clothing by HP, agreed.

“She’s done put in the work over the years,” Henderson said. “I feel like when you do that, you can demand things and make it happen. She’s in that position to do those things because she’s helped so many people and just brought in and created a family for the University of South Carolina as a whole.”