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For almost as long as I've been a sportswriter, the NCAA has enjoyed a solid reputation for hosting championship events.
But this year exposed some cracks in that reputation. The NCAA women's basketball tournament was fraught with inequality, from the different COVID testing protocols to vastily inferior weight room facilities, and the down to sub-standard prize packages. It led to a national outcry.
The NCAA reached out to a third party to help conduct an investigation of how things go could so poorly, and I look forward to hearing those details.
I'm sure there were missteps unique to that particular tournament, or systemic inequalities unique to women's college basketball, and hopefully the investigation shines a light on those while pushing authorities to correct them.
But I've been wondering some bigger picture questions, beyond just one tournament. How does one even begin to plan such a large and complicated event in the future? What questions should athletic directors, presidents and administrators consider while planning an event? What does success look like?
This is not my area of expertise. I get a little overwhelmed planning any event more complicated than a three-year old's birthday.
So I reached out to an expert, somebody who has been more involved in basketball than almost anybody. I reached out to Big East Commissioner, and now Hall of Famer, Val Ackerman.
One thing I didn't completely understand is just how complicated, bureaucratically, running an NCAA Tournament event can be.
Ackerman tried to unpack the org chart for me. There's the Women's Basketball Tournament Committee, the group that picks the At-Large bids for the tournament and handles broad policy issues relating to the event. Then you also have the Women's Basketball Oversight Committee, a separate group that may need to work with the WBTC, given the Tournament's outsized importance in women's basketball. Then there would be a local organizing committee. The NCAA's medical staff, including the Medical Advisory Group, would also need to be involved. When you add in local political, public health and chamber of commerce type authorities, well...it's a lot.
I'm used to tracking down this sort of thing, but as I was taking notes...it's hard not to look like, well, you know.
Ackerman told that just like with anything else, the more people do something, generally, the better they get at it. If you have the same administrators and the same facilities involved in a tournament, they'll understand their roles better and find more efficiencies. In a white paper she wrote about how to improve outcomes in women's basketball, she asked, should one just pick a site and stay there for 10 years and each year it becomes continually better because the community knows what to do?
"The answer back has been from the women's basketball committee has been, well we have so much interest in this event! So many cities want to host it. We've got demand, so why not just travel around the country and bring women's basketball to all these different communities, just like that happens on the men's side."
So for the foreseeable future, you won't see a single-site women's tournament, like we had this season.
In a conventional season, moving around the country, with so many cities hosting events, would be a massive logistical undertaking. And even though 2020's men's and women's tournaments were held at a single site, they weren't conventional by any stretch of the imagination.
In fact, Ackerman told me that "I don't think the NCAA is getting enough credit for pulling these two events off, frankly, in a COVID environment." She pointed out that only one basketball tournament lost any games due to COVID positivity, and that everybody was under immense pressure to handle a situation that nobody had a playbook for.
It's clear that the tournaments, especially the women's tournament, didn't go off flawlessly. You don't bring in an outside law firm to conduct investigations of flawless tournaments.
We don't know the results of that report yet. But Ackerman, in her years with USA Basketball, the WNBA, the Big East, and more, knows a thing or two about how to successfully stage a major event. So I asked her what she's learned, and what conferences or the NCAA ought to think about to make sure they're holding successful, equitable events.
"When you have a comparable sport...men's and women's soccer, men's and women's basketball, etc...I think you need to ask yourself three questions."
What about those championships have to be identical?
"The obvious example, going back to the basketball tournaments, would be the gift suite. You can't have a gift suite for the guys that have electronic accessories and nice apparel, and then give the women a swag bag." The final Kaplan audit will have more details, but anybody with a Twitter account could see that the athlete gift packages were not the same for the two basketball tournaments.
Ackerman also added that in her judgement, "the [COVID] testing should have been identical this time around, but the NCAA was defending it saying they were dealing with different public health authorities. Texas said, you know, said we'll do antigen, Indianapolis said we'll do the PCR."
The next question: What should be comparable?
The example Ackerman gave me was hotel chain accommodation. If you're holding events in different cities, well, it might not be possible to book every team in exactly the same kind of hotel. But if the hotel quality is similar, then not having identical accommodations could be just fine. Theoretically, taking one team to Culver's and another to Whatbaburger is okay. Taking one team to a five-star hotel, and the other to a Red Roof Inn, would not be. Ackerman also mentioned broadcast and media coverage formats as something that might not be identical, but should be comparable.
Then you have the last question: What is permissibly different? What's different, but that's okay?
These might fall into sport-specific differences. The women's game uses a different ball, uses a quarter system, might not be broadcast exactly the same way, etc. Ackerman acknowledged that attendance can shape differences in the way the tournaments are run in the early rounds. It makes more sense to play first round women's basketball games on campus, but move men's games to neutral sites.
Some of these questions can be answered by simply combining events, like the NCAA recently did for the men's and women's soccer championships, which were both held in Cary, North Carolina. But if that's not the case, Ackerman argues this should be the thought process used to evaluate those differences.
Which then comes back to the complicated bureaucracy: "Who makes those decisions? Who's in charge of blessing it all?"
In such expansive organizations, it can be hard to figure out who really needs to make a decision.
Just like with NIL.
That's why I also wanted to ask about group licensing
When I write about NIL-issues for audiences that don't work in college sports, the biggest question I get, even now, is what does this mean for the video game? I get it; I love the college football video games. I loved the college basketball games too. Heck, I even owned a copy of the EA Sports College Baseball game. I'm...less proud of that purchase.
The biggest hangup in playing a video game that resembles the roster of current players is the idea of group licenses. EA would like to pay current athletes to give their likeness for the video game, but they don't have a mechanism to currently do so.
Last year, while NCAA leaders debated what the NCAA's national NIL policy should be, Ackerman said that she didn't think group licenses were possible without a college athlete player's union, something highly unlikely to come about n the near future, given current national labor law.
This is from last year, for example.
But a lot has changed since last year! Does that tweet still represent her opinion?
"Yes, very much so," Ackerman told me. "This goes back to my pro experience. Let's look at a pro league group license. That combines league intellectual property with athlete intellectual property. Each of those sets of rights have value. How do the two entities divide that revenue, seeing as they both provide value? That negotiation is held between the league and the union."
"Then we have the question, 'how do the athletes share the revenue?' Is it shared equally, or do the athletes that get featured more earn more money? In the case of the pro league, that would be managed by the union. And that agreement would be recognized and legally protected, because the union is the legally recognized bargaining agent on behalf of the players."
"That way, you don't have a pro athlete coming back and suing, saying that the distribution isn't fair."
"But in college, we don't have that legally protected bargaining agent, whether that's a union or a legally recognized agent for the athletes...we don't have it. That may be an area where Congress has to get involved and establish what that association is."
"Our thinking was, it didn't seem that the various state laws were really pressing on group licenses. Their focus was on individual licenses."
Not every proposed federal bill address group licensing at the moment, but the most expansive proposed NIL reforms, championed by Sen.Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Murphy (D-CT), does explicitly allow for athletes to enter into group licenses.
For what it's worth, not every outside observer agrees with this analysis. Malaika Underwood, SVP of licensing at OneTeamPartners, told Front Office Sports here that she believes "that a labor union is not a prerequisite for group player rights." The Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law published an interview indicating that a Performance Rights Organization, or PRO, may be sufficient.
But the concern over that legal protection of group rights negotiations stands out as the sticking point for Ackerman. "I think what the schools would say is, they want to be sure that whatever arrangement is done through a legally permissible way, so that there would not be a challenge later."
The concerns over potential litigation have reportedly shaped much of the NCAA's relative inaction on NIL policies.
If anything, that may speak to how these two issues are actually similar.
Enacting change over a massive organization, whether it's altering rules that have been in place for decades, or hosting events for thousands of stakeholders all throughout the country, can be really hard and complicated. We'll be getting one independent report breaking down where things went wrong with the NCAA women's tournament, and perhaps someday in the future, we'll get a book that details exactly how, and when, top administrators missed their chance to act on NIL before outside entities forced them to, and not on their terms.
Thanks again for your support of Extra Points. Questions about sponsoring newsletters or podcasts, or about securing bulk institutional discounts, can be sent to sales@ExtraPointsMB.com. For newsletter feedback, article ideas, FOIA requests, radio show bookings and more, I'm at Matt@ExtraPointsMB.com, or @MattBrownEP on Twitter.