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Here's the next battle for money and resources in women's basketball

Fan interest is there. The TV deal is there. But what happens next?

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

The college sports world is still buzzing from the success of the Women’s Final Four. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, millions more people watched Iowa and South Carolina than UConn and Purdue. From ticket sales to TV ratings to popular awareness, high level women’s college basketball has never been in a better place, a trend that looks to further boost the momentum of the WNBA.

Next year’s college basketball season won’t include star players like Caitlin Clark. Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso, Aaliyah Edwards or Cameron Brink, but it is still loaded with star talent. The on-court product shouldn’t be an issue at all…but the explosion in fan (and brand) interest does lead to some significant administrative questions.

Like how to finally pay out Tournament Units

The NCAA pays out “unit” awards to conferences based on how many games their teams play in the Men’s basketball tournament, the only postseason event with such a payout system. I’ve been writing about various WBB unit proposals since I started this newsletter in 2019, and I know the concept has been proposed even earlier than that…only for proposals to stall when it came down to haggling over where the money should come from.

Earlier this week, NCAA president Charlie Baker told ESPN that the organization is hoping to establish a WBB unit payout for the 2024-2025 season. On Wednesday, The Athletic reported an update on the various proposals and debates to actually implement the payouts.

Among the unsettled questions:

  • Should unit distribution go to all leagues that participate in the Tournament, with additional payouts for wins (like with the MBB event), or should they only be distributed for wins? I.e, should a 15 seed get a unit just for making the event?

  • Should the units be funded only by the WBB valuation of the new NCAA postseason TV deal, or should they be supplemented with other NCAA funding sources?

  • Should the units be paid out annually and reset every year, or should they pay out over a number of years, like with the MBB?

  • How much should a unit be worth? According to the proposal mentioned in The Athletic story, a valuation of $190K/Unit is being circulated now.

I imagine that most conferences would fight hard for WBB units to go to every participating league, not just those who win games. Payouts for MBB units also help supplement conference expenditures for many low-majors, and I would imagine many conferences would want to earmark some unit money to pay for things like better communication personnel, better conference tournament experiences, or broadcast improvements for WBB games. If payouts are only tied to winning, the P4 + Big East would typically earn almost all the money.

Bernadette McGlade, the Atlantic 10 commissioner, told me she’s been proposing WBB postseason payouts since 1999, when she served on the WBB Selection Committee. She told me she believes that WBB units should go to every participating league, and that the NCAA ought to fund those units not just via TV revenues, but other NCAA revenue sources. “Money received for NCAA Corporate Partners sponsorship, which included the WBB rights, could be used.”

McGlade also mentioned that she also supports payouts for the WBIT, which is owned by the NCAA.

Whatever format the unit system takes after passing through various NCAA subcommittee hell, it probably won’t be earth-shattering money. But that isn’t the point. Creating a unit system is a powerful statement to demonstrate that women’s basketball matters to the NCAA, and even modest amounts of distributed money can go a long way towards building a stronger infrastructure to support women’s basketball.

And that’s important, because continued growth is never guaranteed

Dr. Cheryl Cooky, a professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Purdue, recently made this important point on The Conversation.

Since Title IX’s passage in 1972, women’s sports have occasionally experienced big ratings and massive crowds. In 1983, nearly 12 million viewers tuned in as the University of Southern California, led by star forward Cheryl Miller, bested LSU in the basketball championship game. And more than 90,000 fans attended the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Pasadena, California.

The media briefly focused on these events, before returning to business as usual: giving men’s sports outsized attention.

Dr.Cooky argues that this time could very well be different, thanks to record-breaking TV viewership, the mobilization of feminism as a promotional tactic in women’s sports, and a less-centralized media landscape than in the 1980s and 1990s. I hope she’s right!

But she also points out that large crowds shouldn’t automatically lead to folks assuming that growth and interest will continue automatically, especially since institutional media outlets have historically devoted only tiny chunks (usually less than 10%) of time and space to women’s sports. It’s one thing to flock to The Next Big Thing. It’s another to keep showing up.

There are plenty of independent outlets that are closely covering women’s sports (The Next Hoops, The Gist, Just Women’s Sports, Power Plays, and many more), and that less centralized approach can be very effective, especially in reaching younger audiences. But what those outlets typically lack when compared to broadcasters and major institutional media companies is the money to pay for lots of full-time staffers. When coverage is dominated by stringers, freelancers or junior roles, reporters won’t be able to travel as much, develop deep relationships, or provide depth of coverage outside official league or school PR.

There are outlets that have made legitimate investments in covering women’s sports, not just promoting it, like ESPN and The Athletic. But as Shannon Ryan points out here, the growth of WBB should also be a call to cover basketball like a real, major sport. Because it is.

There’s so much to be excited about with women’s basketball right now. More games are on linear (and high-quality streaming) than ever before. The quality of play is excellent, both the college and WNBA ranks have legitimate star power, and the fan interest is there. But sustaining and growing that momentum will also require more investments in the infrastructure of the sport. Success is not necessarily a historical inevitability.

Also…Northwestern football is gonna play WHERE?!?

It’s been a fun little game for us Chicago sportswriters to try and guess where Northwestern is going to play over the next two years while Ryan Field is being rebuilt. Solider Field, I’m told, isn’t a realistic option due to availability, size and cost. Northwestern has kicked the tires on Wrigley Field, Seatgeak Stadium, and others, but no single venue is open for the right dates and the right price for everything.

So the Wildcats are gonna try something unique. They’re going to throw up some temporary stands and play many of their home games at the Lanny and Sharon Martin athletics facility, where the school’s lacrosse and soccer programs play.

This place is right on Lake Michigan, and the views truly are gorgeous….and in November, the wind and lake effect could provide some legitimate home field advantage. But boy howdy is this going to be a tight fit. Martin Stadium is tucked into a back corner of campus, right next to multiple business school buildings, and there isn’t a ton of room to rig up 30,000+ seats, to say nothing of the extra bathrooms, expanded press box, equipment storage, and everything else that goes with turning a soccer field into a Big Ten football stadium.

Northwestern hosts Wisconsin and Ohio State this season, and Michigan and Oregon in 2025. I’ll want to talk more about the nitty-gritty details with Northwestern folks later this month, but I think it’s fair to say that there is absolutely no way Northwestern will be able to host those kinds of opponents in a facility that might be able to squeeze in 20,000 people. Those games are gonna have to be off-campus…somewhere.

If you want to watch the Wildcats host Miami (OH) or Eastern Illinois? My best advice would be to either buy a season ticket package, or find a way to enroll as a student, because single game tickets are going to be tough to come by. With such limited room, this is gonna be some artisanal, small-batch college football.

Hawaii had to create a similar setup when Aloha Stadium was condemned (in fact, Northwestern is using the same company that helped configure their temporary seating). But this certainly doesn’t happen very often. I’m very interested to learn how about how Northwestern is going to pull this off, and what kind of experience it will be to watch a game there.

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Here’s what else I wrote this week:

I’ve also been spending more time trying to better index our archives (did you know that there are over 800 editions of Extra Points???), filing more FOIAs for a rebirth of the FOIA Directory, and more back-end upgrades that I hope to share soon.

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