Earlier this month, sports business reporter, NFT enthusiast and noted dumbass Darren Rovell was entirely puzzled by a series of Buick ads promoting gender equity in sports and responded by tweeting: “Women get less coverage during March Madness because there’s less madness, fewer upsets and the bracket is predictable. That’s all. It’s not the same product.”
I’m not going to waste your time or mine by explaining how sexist this is, because I would prefer we all kept our brain cells for more pressing matters like supporting moms of trans kids in Texas or praying/wishing/hoping/PRAYING that Marsha Blackburn 2024 isn’t a thing. So, instead, I’ll explain why this ill-advised tweet isn’t just dead wrong, but part of the historic poisoning of our collective framing of women’s sports.
The series of Buick spots referenced by the aforementioned dumbass state that while 40% of athletes are women, they get less than 10% of the media coverage that male athletes do. One spot features Arike Ogunbowale, who, in 2018, hit “one of the greatest buzzer beaters” in NCAA history and won the national championship for Notre Dame. “But you probably didn’t see it,” the spot adds. I certainly didn’t.
I grew up hearing as a high school athlete that one should at all costs avoid having to endure the profound boredom and psychological torture of watching a women’s basketball game. We lived just an hour away from the Staples Center, the home of the Los Angeles Sparks, and I was never encouraged nor invited to go to a Sparks game. In college, I was required to attend both our women’s and men’s basketball games as part of my weekly cheer team duties, and the men’s team, which was significantly worse than our women’s team at the time, nearly always drew a bigger crowd during regular season games. The idea that one shouldn’t waste precious time at a women’s sporting event was unfortunately so baked into my youth culture that I was physically shocked—and perhaps shed a small tear—when I walked into a bar that was televising a live women’s gymnastics meet earlier this year. In fact, seeing women’s sports on television is so uncommon that there is just one women’s sports bar in America dedicated to playing only women’s sports…and it opened this year.
But that narrative is finally, at a snail’s pace, changing. On Tuesday night, the women’s UConn and NC State basketball teams battled it out in a “thriller” of a game and garnered 2 million viewers, as UConn won in double overtime and advanced to the Final Four. According to ESPN PR, that’s the best Elite 8 women’s audience since 2006 and the most-watched NCAA women’s basketball game of 2022. Viewership is up 11% since the prior year, and this year’s first ever women’s March Madness tournament is on pace to become the most watched women’s tournament in ten years with 51.6 million viewing hours to date. According to Opendorse and Shot Clock Media, of the five highest valued NIL (name, image and likeness) players of men’s and women’s Final Four players, four are women, and the top two slots were awarded to Paige Bueckers of UConn, who’s currently featured in Gatorade ads, and Hailey Van Lith of Louisville.
All of those promising stats are a far cry from where the NCAA stood last year on gender equity, which had manifested in some ugly, tangible ways. The women’s teams had a measly training room with just a few dumbbells, in contrast to the men’s convention hall filled to the brim with sturdy equipment. The men got a 500-piece puzzle in their notably more stacked swag bag, while the women’s puzzle had only 150 pieces. That sounds like a stupid thing to point out, but it means something: A 114-page review prompted by the incident later revealed a $35 million difference in spending for the men’s tournament in 2019.
This year, the NCAA has so generously allowed the women’s tournament to use its “March Madness” branding for the first time in history, on top of expanding to the women’s tournament to 68 teams to mirror the men and ensuring that all athletes received the same perks, including gifts, meals, lounges, and accommodations. But women athletes are still fighting an uphill battle here: Most women’s leagues have been around for much less time than their male counterparts, which makes comparing women’s audience and financial data to men’s pretty useless and unfair. It takes time to raise funds and develop underdogs, rivalries, sponsorships, fan bases and epic merch — all of the key tenets that supposedly make for a good sporting league.
So, sure, the women’s Final Four might be full of No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. There’s no underdog story for the ages and no shocking upsets thus far. But to say women’s sports aren’t as entertaining or deserving of airtime simply because there’s no underdog story is an excuse that becomes dangerous when the people covering women’s sports…actually buy into that narrative. And I’d venture to ask whether such a statement says more about the women athletes or the journalists observing them. To borrow from Van Lith, “If they want to sleep, let them sleep.”