Aliyah Boston was sitting at an interview table with a teammate and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley when the players were asked about the delicate balance of drawing on past experience versus the need to focus only on the goal ahead. Boston, the well-known area star from Worcester, firmly fixed her gaze forward.
“Past game, no matter what’s happened, this is a new tournament and here we go,” she said. “It’s time to rock.”
That’s when teammate Destanni Henderson jumped in. “Time to dance,” Henderson said.
The two laughed, and Boston conceded. “Time to dance,” she said. “I take it back.”
Time to dance. It’s a phrase that resonates with particular emotion this time of year, usable only when your team punches a ticket to the Big Dance, booking itself a turn in the nationwide celebration of basketball otherwise called the NCAA Tournament. You might know it better as March Madness, but as recently as a year ago, that phrase was licensed only to the men’s tournament. Understanding why that has changed is, with all due respect to Boston, a very important reason to look back.
While Boston and her South Carolina teammates take their overall top ranking and the No. 1 seed in their region and try to dance their way to the school’s second national title (they won in 2017), it’s actually very important that the sport revisit the viral moment a year ago that spawned a multitude of changes from that tournament to this.
It was 10:26 p.m. on March 18, 2021, when Oregon forward Sedona Prince posted the tweet that shook the basketball world, narrating a Tik Tok video she’d made comparing the weight room options for the women’s tournament compared with the men’s.
Recalling now that the two tournaments were played in similar COVID-necessitated bubbles, Prince unmasked the NCAA’s egregious double standards, sharing sweeping photos of the men’s large and well-stocked weight rooms versus the small rack of hand weights and yoga mats available to the women.
Let me put it on Twitter too cause this needs the attention pic.twitter.com/t0DWKL2YHR— Sedona Prince (@sedonaprince_) March 19, 2021
As she said in conclusion, “If you aren’t upset about this problem then you are a part of it.”
The reaction was swift and far-reaching, with further inequity in everything from swag bags to “March Madness” insignia to inferior food options getting exposed in what felt like rapid and stunning succession.
Even the notoriously slow-moving, labyrinthian inner workings of the NCAA managed to respond in alarm, quickly improving supplies and conditions for the women’s teams. But that wasn’t enough — it was as if a conversation long held behind closed doors and in more hushed, frustrated tones was ripped open for everyone to join, and it was one that started because a new generation of young female athletes used their voices, and amplified them through social media.
A year later, the discussion continues, some of it delighted at progress made in a year, seen in the simple optics of using the March Madness logo or the simple parallel of upping the field to 68 teams to match the men, some of it still aimed at fixing other disparities, such as the way revenue of the lucrative basketball month is distributed to conferences and schools.
The NCAA instituted a series of upgrades to the women’s side, much of it in response to the scathing report by the firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink, which had been commissioned to investigate last year’s debacle. The 114-page conclusion showed stark spending differences in everything from marketing and promotion to player meals to event staffing and more.
“It was good to see those decisions made quickly, but to that point, there are still some changes that need to be made,” said Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “It calls into question why they haven’t changed the revenue distribution yet. That’s the one change that we’ve talked about for a long time now, financial incentives impact funding priorities, and they impact behaviors.
“And the NCAA March Madness tournament generates significant funding, $600 million, that the NCAA distributes, and 28 percent of that distribution is based on how mens’ teams perform in the tournament. The Knight Commission has said that any national distribution, and frankly any division or conference distribution, should be gender equitable. If it is going to reward athletic success, it must reward athletic success for men’s and women’s teams. Currently women’s teams are not included in any type of performance based distribution. That’s an issue that must be addressed.”
Her point is so important. And there are more like it. While no one would contend the women’s television rights, viewership or revenue is about to rival what the men get from CBS, the fact that the women’s package with ESPN remains part of a now 20-year-old rollover contract that lumps it together with all other non-revenue championship sports is egregious. That will change soon, with estimates of million-dollar packages for the stand-alone right to televise the women’s tournament, not surprising given how much the tourney has increased in popularity.
Also among changes this year was moving the women’s Selection Show to Sunday, the same time as the men’s. That could be risky, with the women getting overshadowed, but reality seems to show enough enthusiasm to go around. According to ESPN, the show averaged more than 1.1 million viewers, up 160 percent from a year ago.
Sunday night's NCAA Women's Selection Special averaged more than 1.1M viewers— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) March 16, 2022
🏀 Up 160% over '21
🏀 Most-viewed women's selection special since '05
'22 #NCAAWBB tournament coverage: https://t.co/G2rfAhnhFs pic.twitter.com/Uz3IuNMVlH
So much has changed from a year ago, when a viral tweet began with Stanford performance coach Ali Kershner and then exploded with Prince’s larger social media following.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that last year was an eye-opener,” said Nicki Collen, coach of Baylor, a No. 2 seed in this tournament. “And it’s probably the beauty of social media. There’s a lot of negatives with social media, but I think what this started is good for women’s basketball. And started a narrative about how valuable the women’s tournament is for the NCAA and how it should be treated as such.
“I think it’s great for women’s basketball. And, you know, if it took players calling them out and — because I think it’s hard in these first and second rounds to compare apples to apples [women’s games are hosted at member schools with men’s games at neutral sites]. But last year when we were talking about two bubble scenarios, like, you were comparing apples and apples and they weren’t.
“I’m excited to see how our tournament grows as a result of this.”
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.