Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
Five years ago, I started writing about sports professionally, which almost immediately turned into writing about women’s sports. During March Madness 2017, I was only tangentially aware of well, anything, having never watched college basketball beyond what went along with my band duties. But the competition was electrifying. There was Morgan William’s remarkable buzzer beater to snap UConn’s win streak, a shot the Huskies still haven’t recovered from, and South Carolina’s first title — the championship that literally inspired an A’ja Wilson statue in Columbia. How could anyone resist?
That’s the thing that’s been so befuddling about the perpetual underinvestment in women’s college basketball. The whole structure of the thing is addictive by design, just like the men’ tournament is with its high-stakes single elimination games and huge diversity of different teams to get overinvested in. Watch once and you’ll be hooked, just like I was; all the long-internalized sexism gets pushed to the side in favor of watching people fight with everything they have for the thing they want most in the world. Entertainment, pure and simple.
Instead, it took a global pandemic laying bare any number of different forms of inequality in the most tragic way possible to jumpstart a real shift. I don’t think “single site college basketball tournaments will expose the unequal treatment of men and women athletes” was something many people called ahead of time. But the unusual circumstances did make those inequalities obvious — and, after they went viral, finally prompted the NCAA to take some large-scale action. Honestly, the most momentous-feeling change might be the simplest: finally, we can call the NCAA women’s Division I tournament “March Madness,” too.
Suddenly, the corporations with a financial interest in women’s college basketball succeeding (mostly ESPN) are actually acting like that’s the case. Women’s March Madness is still less ubiquitous and accessible than the men’s equivalent, but to have people with power actually trying at all to promote it still feels like a sea change. ESPN offers $100,000 to the winner of its bracket challenge, and Dick’s (funnily enough) is trying to one up them by partnering with Just Women’s Sports to offer a $150,000 prize.
As a result, getting people on the bandwagon is easier than ever (although it still helps to have an ESPN+ subscription for the opening rounds). Tell your friends to see if their alma mater will be competing, or give them ideas of the most fun team to bandwagon. Or up the ante by creating a pool among your colleagues or friends or family or whatever. A $10 buy-in gives even the grumpiest women’s basketball skeptic an incentive — or just come up with some less gambling-centric prize. (An aside: someone with tech skills please create a survivor pool for the women’s tournament!)
Part of the process of getting people to approach watching women’s sports less like it’s eating their vegetables is to normalize them, to draw people in for the competition itself instead of because it’s some sort of unpleasant moral good. Creating community around them, including by drawing people in with a twist on a very familiar process, is a crucial part of that.