Is This a Moment for Women's College Hoops? : Consider This from NPR When it comes to TV ratings, women's college basketball is trending upward - even as the men's game is losing viewers. When it comes to resources and media coverage? There's still a wide gap between the men and women.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Chantel Jennings, senior writer covering women's basketball for The Athletic, about the factors that contribute to that gap and how the women's game could overcome them.

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Is This a Moment for Women's College Hoops?

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If you're even a casual college basketball fan, you've probably seen the play a million times.


VERNE LUNDQUIST: No team has repeated as NCAA champions since UCLA did it in 1973. Will the dream die here for Duke?

KELLY: If you're a hardcore fan, you simply call it The Shot.


LUNDQUIST: There's the pass to Laettner - puts it up. Yes.


KELLY: Christian Laettner's last-second bucket in overtime sent Kentucky home and Duke to the 1992 Final Four. The Blue Devils went on to repeat as national champions in a final game that was seen by 34 million people that year.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Love, top of the key - oh.



KELLY: Fast forward to last year, Duke was in the Final Four again, this time facing archrival North Carolina in the national semifinal for the first time ever. To make things even more compelling, it was the last game for Duke's legendary head coach, Mike Krzyzewski.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Grayson pull up three - no good. Rebound Carolina. And the fairy-tale ride for the Tar Heels continues.

KELLY: About 18 million people tuned in, so roughly half the audience of 1992. And that is only half the story when it comes to college basketball and TV audiences. The other half? That viewership is trending up for the women's game.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: It is not unfinished business any longer. South Carolina has captured its second national championship.

KELLY: South Carolina's triumph over the University of Connecticut in last year's title game was watched by nearly 6 million people. That is the biggest TV audience for a women's final since 2004. TV ratings for the entire women's tournament were 16% higher than the year before. And it's not just basketball. A recent study by the National Research Group found that almost a third of sports fans say they are watching more women's sports than they were a year ago.


KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - clearly, there is a surge in attention from fans for women's college basketball, less of a surge when it comes to media coverage and resources for players.


KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Friday, March 17.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Women's college basketball is growing. And it's not just the TV numbers that say so. Chantel Jennings is senior writer for women's basketball for The Athletic.

CHANTEL JENNINGS: I'm someone who lives part of my professional life on Twitter. Just the following that has happened there, the NIL deals - the name, image and likeness deals - that have happened for women's basketball players over the last two years, all of it speaks to the growing popularity of the sport.

KELLY: NIL deals affect all college sports, but Jennings says women college athletes have one key advantage.

JENNINGS: Speaking with a lot of experts, you know, coming into it, the main thing was that women, specifically college-aged women, are really good at social media. They have a knack for TikTok. They have a knack for Instagram. And so they've sort of been able to harness that at a time when so much of companies' marketing schemes and plans have sort of gone to social. We're not seeing as many TV ads or sort of emphasis put on the TV ads so much as those integrations into Instagram and TikTok. And that's where a lot of college-aged women are.

KELLY: Are there other factors at play here, other reasons why people might be paying more attention to the women's game?

JENNINGS: Oh, certainly. I think one of - one adage that I've always said sort of inspired by a very famous movie is if you broadcast it, people will watch. We've seen more and more broadcast - broadcasted games for the women's tournament, for the women's season overall. They've been put more on sort of the higher networks, the main ESPN instead of sort of ESPN News or ESPN2. This will actually be the first time in almost 20 years that the national championship game is broadcast on ABC or a main network instead of being on cable, and that matters a lot because that's another 40 million households or so across the U.S. And so you're just seeing more of these games being put in a place where people can consume them.

KELLY: OK. So the women's final, we can tune into it live on ABC for the first time, as you note. But how big a gap are we talking between men and women's basketball and how the media covers them?

JENNINGS: So I guess that depends what we're talking about in terms of media. I think there's obviously the print media, and there's the TV media. In terms of print media, this is an area where it really still lags a lot for the women. I would say nationally, for people that cover just women's basketball, there are fewer than 10 of us.

KELLY: Fewer than 10 where it's your beat, just the - got it.

JENNINGS: Yes, where all you cover is women's basketball. And there aren't - of that group, a lot of people, because of the WNBA season, kind of shift over into covering the WNBA in the offseason. I'll be covering college basketball year-round this year. The Athletic recently hired two more people on this beat with me. But that's a rarity. I am very much the exception and not the norm. Whereas if you look at people that cover men's college basketball, they don't cover the NBA in the offseason - same thing with the NFL and college football. And so this is definitely an area that is lagging in terms of the attention from journalism, and that's, you know, slowly picking up. I'd like to think that we have a part in making it more mainstream, but it's definitely lagging behind the men's counterpart.

KELLY: Right. What would the rough men's number be? If you say there's 10 of you covering the women's game, how about the men?

JENNINGS: You know, if you think about most major newspapers, they have someone who's covering that men's college basketball team, or it's the men's college football and the men's college basketball team at a newspaper. Those jobs are obviously also fewer and further between now because of sort of what's happening to journalism. But even at The Athletic or, you know, ESPN, if you look across the landscape of journalism, there's certainly at least twice as many people at these outlets covering men's basketball as women's basketball.

KELLY: What about resources? I'm remembering that scandal a couple years ago when images that made the rounds on social media showed this massive disparity in the size of the weight room that athletes could use during March Madness. The men had this big, fully stocked weight room. And the women's was - like, it was puny, I think it's fair to say.

JENNINGS: Mary Louise, I think puny is a very kind way to put what the NCAA had done.

KELLY: What word would you use?

JENNINGS: Nonexistent, probably. They had - I think it was one stack of dumbbells, like, four different weights. And then my favorite part was that it was, like, 11 yoga mats, which isn't even enough for a full team. Like, they didn't even provide enough yoga mats so that everyone on the team could do yoga if that's what they wanted to do.

KELLY: And this year - how's it looking this year?

JENNINGS: So this year we don't know exactly yet. I haven't gotten to Dallas yet. But in the wake of that, there has been a lot more attention in terms of sort of making sure that those resources at least appear to be equal. The main thing that we really need to talk about, though, is sort of the TV broadcast rights. And those are coming up again for the women's tournament in - the deal ends in August 2024 with ESPN. But the main difference here is that the men's tournament has been sold on its own for the last, you know, several decades, whereas the women's NCAA tournament has been packaged with 28 other championships since it was sold to ESPN two decades ago.

And so the women, in this way, really haven't been able to capitalize on that success, on that growing popularity that we were just talking about because it's been packaged with track and field championships, gymnastics championships, softball and baseball championships. There was the Kaplan report that came out in the wake of that weight room scandal that suggested that the women's tournament alone would be worth somewhere between 81 and $112 million in TV broadcast rights. Its current deal right now with ESPN with the 28 other championships is just $34 million a year.

KELLY: It's interesting. Men's college basketball has actually been declining in popularity and for a while now. Is it outrageous to wonder whether one day, one of these days, women might catch and surpass the men?

JENNINGS: I don't think anything is sort of crazy to think about in terms of what is or is not going to become more popular. You're completely right, though, that, you know, in 2018, 3.5 million people watched the women's NCAA title game, and last year it peaked at 6 million. And so you have this sport that is really growing so quickly and cultivating more and more fans. And just in terms of the NCAA tournament, where we're talking about where it started from, the men's tournament existed four decades before the women's tournament did. And so it sort of had this 60-yard head start.

And so I think a lot of times when we're comparing the two, I always say comparison is the thief of joy. Here, it's sort of the thief of being able to look at it completely fairly because the men just have such a head start, whereas you're looking at what the women have been able to do. The men's national title game last year drew 18 million. The women got a third of that. But when you sort of think about the TV broadcast rights, the head start that the men had in terms of growing fan bases, growing fans, the different ads that sort of exist around just the men's tournament, it's hard to - we're definitely not talking about apples to apples here.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's get to some of the actual play, some of the games for those of us looking to watch some of the women's tournament as it gets underway. Give us a few pointers. Who or what should we be watching for?

JENNINGS: Well, if you're looking for a team, it would be South Carolina. Dawn Staley, who has coached the U.S. to an Olympic gold medal, who has coached this team to a national championship, has multiple national championships under her belt, is a former WNBA and college star herself - she is coaching a team right now that is the most dominant in women's college basketball. They've won 38 straight as of Friday morning, looking for their 39th win...


JENNINGS: ...Over 16-seed Norfolk State on Friday afternoon. So they're certainly an exciting team. They're led by Aliyah Boston. What makes them really interesting is they have a ton of depth. There is not a lot of depth in women's college basketball or college sports at all anymore because of how players are able to transfer. And Dawn Staley brings an Olympian off her bench. She brings a six-foot-seven Sixth Woman of the Year off her bench. And so they're really fun to watch because you just sort of think, my goodness. It's sort of like a clown car of talent. Like, she just keeps pulling people out of this bench that - it's like, you could be starting for any other team in the country right now. But they're going for their second national championship.

I think one really interesting area is it'll be a regional that's happening in Seattle. Potentially, Iowa and Stanford are on a collision course. Iowa obviously has Caitlin Clark, who is known for her logo threes constantly being tweeted at by NBA and NFL players for sort of these big plays she makes, the swagger she has. Stanford, led by Tara VanDerveer of the winningest coach in women's college basketball - the idea of these two teams meeting with a trip to the Final Four on the line is very, very exciting.

And I think UConn is probably another team nationally that will resonate with a lot of people. Everyone knows Geno Auriemma and the legacy of this team that has 14 straight trips to the Final Four. This year it sort of looked like that might be in question because they had so many injury issues. There were times when they had to postpone games because they didn't have seven healthy players, which is the minimum for the NCAA for a team to be able to take the court. And so they got healthy right in the nick of time, won the Big East championship, got a 2-seed overall and certainly have a path to the national championship game, I think.

KELLY: That was Chantel Jennings of The Athletic.


KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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