March Madness Inequities Cry Out For Better Data, Understanding Of Basketball Fans

The pictures spoke a thousand words. The inequities in the experiences between the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments exasperated nearly everyone, from the athletes, to the coaches, to NCAA administrators and most importantly, the fans. After nearly 50 years of Title IX, how does this keep happening?

The answer may lie in the ways we have traditionally measured (or valued) women’s sports. For decades, the primary measurement has been the number of television viewers watching a game or a tournament. Those numbers are baked into advertising rates, which help to create the jaw dropping media contracts that CBS
and Turner have negotiated with the NCAA, averaging $1 billion annually.

Those metrics factor into the NCAA’s valuation system; in fact, it leads to comments like “the (women’s) NCAA tournament does not generate any net revenue”.

Really? Are we getting the whole picture?

In 2019, nearly 5.6 million viewers watched the closing seconds of Baylor’s stunning victory over Notre Dame. The 2021 opening round match-up between Middle Tennessee and the University of Tennessee attracted 633,000 viewers on ABC; can you imagine what this past weekend’s much-hyped game (also on ABC) between the University of Connecticut and the University of Iowa (along with their fabulous freshman Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark), might score? Both 2021 games were the first to be on a national broadcast channel since 1995. No net revenue? C’mon, man. (Ratings for Iowa and UConn were not available as of publication).

There is an organization looking to upend how we measure and monetize women’s sports content, and the NCAA needs to be its first client. Called The Fan Project, with backing from the WNBA, NWSL, LPGA and even the WWE, has dedicated its work to re-envisioning how to count who is watching women’s sports in the 21st century.

Sports Innovation Lab CEO Angela Ruggerio, herself a four time Olympic Gold Medalist in ice hockey, and founder of The Fan Project, told Sportico “Historically, the sports industry has used linear [television] reach as a proxy for fandom. If all you’re measuring is who is watching, that’s just one fan behavior. There’s a lot of activity that doesn’t get captured in pure ratings, especially when it comes to women’s sports where you only get 4% of media attention. Fans today are fluid. They are betting, liking, sharing, co-creating, going to games—there are all these other behavioral traits that more accurately capture fandom.”

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert is already embracing this movement. She realizes the most valuable way to grow the league’s value (and, by extension, each franchise’s value) is to promote and celebrate the players across multiple platforms. In fact, The Fan Project has already identified that multiple platforms of social engagement by WNBA fans are way up, leading to better data-based conversations when it comes to contract re-negotiations.

Again, Ruggierio reinforces the demand for better data. “Dollars and cents and numbers and analytics, you can’t argue with that. I want this report to move the needle, but really be defensible proof that fans are hungry. Women’s sports are a business opportunity.”

Andy Wittry did an analysis of the Instagram followers of some of the top players in this year’s men’s and women’s tournaments. Assuming the value of each Instagram follower is $0.80 per follower, take a look at the top 10 men and women and the estimate NIL value they could have in today’s marketplace (for accounts with at least 10,000 followers, as of March 25, 2021):

“Women’s basketball player/men’s basketball player: Instagram followers (estimated annual earning potential based on $0.80 per follower)

1. Paige Bueckers, UConn: 685,000 followers ($548,000)

2. Hailey Van Lith, Louisville: 673,000 followers ($538,400)

3. Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga: 304,000 followers ($243,200)

4. Zia Cooke, South Carolina: 193,000 followers ($154,400)

5. Sedona Prince, Oregon: 94,400 followers ($75,520)

6. Cameron Brink, Stanford: 88,000 followers ($70,400)

7. Olivia Nelson-Ododa, UConn: 72,700 followers ($58,160)

8. Anna Wilson, Stanford: 66,700 followers ($53,360)

9. Brea Beal, South Carolina: 64,700 followers ($51,760)

T10. Destanni Henderson, South CarolinaJohn Petty, Alabama: 61,000 followers ($48,800)”

The NFL just signed a massive $113 billion contract for all its content to be shared across multiple platforms, including Amazon
, ESPN+ and Peacock. Each of those platforms attracts different demographics. If the NCAA accepts that a marketplace of data found in names, images and likenesses exists, it should also embrace the fact that much of that same data could be leveraged to drive more value to their NCAA contracts.

Bottom line: Why shouldn’t the NCAA also be actively looking towards advanced metrics in monetizing their highest profile events? Heck, can you imagine the difference for the NCAA Softball Championships, already a highly-watched product on ESPN? Or women’s lacrosse? Or men’s? A rising tide lifts all boats.

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