COLLEGE PARK, MD. — In the second round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday, with the final seconds of the first half ticking off the clock, Maryland freshman point guard Destiny Slocum caught an in-bound pass from her teammate, turned towards the far end of the court and catapulted the basketball over the West Virginia defender sprawling in front of her.
It sailed 70 feet and landed directly into the basket as the buzzer sounded. The crowd of over 6,000 in the Xfinity Center rose to their feet in a deafening roar.
“Watching that thing was crazy,” Slocum said in press afterwards. “I was in shock. I’m still.”
She wasn’t the only one. The shot was instantly GIFed and clipped and became a viral internet sensation, eventually landing her in the top spot of that evening’s SportsCenter Top 10.
It took something undeniably extraordinary, but for at least a few moments, women’s basketball in March stole the show.
— Connor Newcomb (@ConnorNewcomb_) March 19, 2017
When most people think about March Madness, they only think of the behemoth men’s tournament, which generates over $1 billion in advertising revenue alone, more than even the NBA playoffs. When they do think about the women’s game, often they only go as far as the University of Connecticut, which is partially understandable: the UConn women have won the last four NCAA tournaments (and six of the last eight), and are currently on a history-smashing 109-game win streak that extends back to 2014.
But as impressive as that is — and there really aren’t enough superlatives — there is much more to women’s NCAA basketball. This year alone, two double-digit seeds (№ 12 Quinnipiac and № 10 Oregon) made it to the Sweet 16 (only one on the men’s side), and there were nine games decided by one possession, compared to only seven in the men’s opening weekend. And still, there were those complaining about the lack of competitiveness in the women’s game.
That’s endlessly frustrating for those close to the sport. “For people crying for parity in the women’s game, that’s exactly what we saw across the board in the first two rounds,” freelance sportswriter Gabriella Levine told ThinkProgress.
Look, it makes sense why the men’s game is more popular than the women’s right now — it did get quite a head start, after all. The NCAA debuted a men’s basketball tournament in 1939, it didn’t host a comparable women’s tournament until 1982. (From 1971–1982, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women held a championship.) In fact, for most of last century, the women’s game was limited to six-on-six basketball, in which three players from each team remained on each side of the court. Running the full court was simply deemed to be too much work for the women. (This rule changed on the collegiate level in 1971, but didn’t change in many states until much later — Oklahoma didn’t abolish the rule until 1995.)
In 1996, the women’s tournament moved from CBS to ESPN to help its scheduling issues — CBS demanded that the Final Four and championship games be played on back-to-back days — and so that the earlier rounds of the tournament could get more coverage, since CBS would often only nationally broadcast the Final Four. That bet ultimately paid off — ESPN produces all 63 games, and they can be watched online if they are not being shown in your local market.
But being on ESPN has its drawbacks as well, as the games are still sometimes bumped from television for other ESPN sports programs, be it tennis or even the men’s NIT tournament, a showcase of teams not good enough to make it to the Dance.
WNBA player Layisha Clarendon was among those who had problems with the network’s priorities this year.
@espn why are you showing the men's NIT over the women's NCAA tournament right now!?! I'm trying to stream the Wash/Oklahoma game over here!
— Layshia Clarendon (@Layshiac) March 21, 2017
The ESPN contract also makes it hard for fans who are completely tuned into the mega-watt CBS production of the men’s NCAA tournament to even know where to find the women’s games; an article in Teen Vogue this week complained that the NCAA March Madness App doesn’t feature women’s basketball, assuming—reasonably, but incorrectly—that the NCAA owned the app bearing its name and was discriminating against the women. But it’s CBS, not the NCAA, that runs the March Madness app, which is why the women’s tournament isn’t included — CBS doesn’t have the rights to include the women in the app.
Ultimately though, the biggest challenge that women’s basketball faces is that the men’s is still seen as the default, especially in March.
“When it comes to choosing between the men’s and women’s games, the media always chose the men’s,” Levine said.
ESPN might have the rights to the women’s game, but its website still features the men’s tournament much more prominently. At a bar on Saturday night, there were televisions turned to three blow-out men’s college basketball games; an NBA game where the starters were sitting; and an early-tournament World Baseball Classic game, despite the fact that there was a close women’s game coming down to the wire. Even the media center at the University of Maryland early on Sunday was showing the Michigan vs. Louisville men’s game instead of the battle on ESPN2 between the women of Kentucky and Ohio State, one of only two teams to beat the Terps this year.
“When it comes to choosing between the men’s and women’s games, the media always chose the men’s.”
It’s a shame, because people not tuning into the women’s tournament are missing out on a chance to enhance the madness — to see more upsets, more nail biters, and more incredible stories unfold in real time. And really, isn’t that the whole point?
There are initiatives in place to help develop the women’s tournament more — including hosting the first two rounds at the home courts of the top four seeds in each region as a way to boost attendance and cater to passionate local fans. (Hence Maryland’s home-court advantage.) And ESPN does devote significant resources into producing its games and pushing the women’s bracket challenge on its website, and the talent and care involved in the productions are notable.
But Levine says that it’s key that women’s basketball fans not fall in the trap of just being happy that women’s basketball games are being shown somewhere, and to continue to push for more thorough, consistent coverage — particularly in the form of beat reporters who spend week in and week out with the teams. Others are thinking even bigger than that. College basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli is a fierce advocate for moving the women’s Sweet 16 to Las Vegas, particularly as a way to cater to the male 18–34 demographic.
“We need some pop. We need some sizzle,” Antonelli said. “I want to take our game right to the guys.”
It’s a firm balance between pushing the sport to get bigger and better, while also understanding and embracing the historical and practical reasons why the women’s game is currently less popular than the men’s. After all, it has come a long way in the past couple of decades, and nobody is more aware than that than Elon head coach Charlotte Smith, who won the NCAA championship for the North Carolina Tar Heels when she hit a game-winning buzzer beater in 1994.
She said in the past 25 years she’s seen the crowds get bigger and the fans grow more passionate and diverse.
“There’s a lot more guys following women’s sports .. to hear them say, ‘We’re watching women’s basketball,’ that’s a great thing because basketball is basketball,” Smith said after Elon’s first-round loss to West Virginia in heartbreaking fashion in the program’s very first NCAA tournament appearance.
“I think [the women’s NCAA tournament has] grown in terms of popularity, attendance, and people respecting the game for what we do. A lot of us may not play above the rim, but we play a beautiful game below it.”
Luckily, the passionate fans at College Park over the weekend didn’t need any convincing. The atmosphere was electric from start to finish — Maryland coach Brenda Frese said on a scale of 1 to 100, it was a 100 — and the fans were treated not only to two flawless performances from their Terps, but also an extremely physical and back-and-forth first-round game between № 6 West Virginia and № 11 Elon. The weekend was so exciting that even Bucknell head coach Aaron Roussel called it “the coolest experience” of his life, despite the fact that his team lost by 42 to Maryland in the first round.
Now Maryland heads to Bridgeport, Connecticut to face Oregon in the Sweet 16. If they win that game, it’s likely that UConn awaits in what would be the most heavily anticipated matchup of the tournament. Even though Maryland is criminally underseeded at № 3, most experts give them the best chance to take down the Huskies and end the historical run.
But coach Frese didn’t want to focus on that Sunday afternoon. She wanted to take a moment to reflect on the day, and particularly the shot that pierced through men’s basketball’s stranglehold on March Madness.
“I thought she shot it like a dart,” Frese said, clearly still in awe. “I was taking it in between our bench and our staff and the crowd, I was taking in that energy, that was the moment I had was appreciating everything that kid continues to do.”
It was, she said, “icing on the cake” of a great weekend — not just for the Terrapins, but for women’s basketball as a whole.