It was an incredible weekend for women’s basketball. The women’s NCAA Final Four was played in front of a sold-out arena in Dallas; the Mississippi State Bulldogs pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports this year when they beat the three-time defending champion University of Connecticut Huskies with a buzzer-beater shot in overtime; and basketball legend Dawn Staley finally won her elusive first title when she coached her South Carolina Gamecocks to the championship on Sunday night.
There was no shortage of compelling storylines for sports fans to engage with. There was, however, a lack of coverage — or at least, significantly less coverage than the simultaneous men’s Final Four received.
Over the past week, ThinkProgress collected data from the NCAA.com, ESPN.com, and ESPN television programs that reveal coverage discrepancies between men’s and women’s college basketball.
Some of the numbers are staggering:
- On the NCAA website, men’s basketball was three times as likely as women’s basketball to be the lead image on the home page, and more than twice as likely to be featured in the top headlines.
- On the ESPN home page, the men’s tournament was nine times as likely to land a featured spot at the top of the website, and almost three times as likely to be featured on the front page as a whole.
- Of the 57 ESPN television shows that ThinkProgress reviewed, 27 episodes didn’t mention women’s college basketball once. Only 12 episodes didn’t include a single segment about men’s college basketball.
ThinkProgress specifically chose to monitor ESPN and the NCAA because both both companies have vested interest in promoting college women’s basketball: ESPN has the television rights to the women’s tournament, and, of course, the NCAA runs the tournament. This project looks at how two of the most important champions of college basketball covers the men’s and women’s games during the most important week of the year for the sport.
Looking at a website like CBS Sports, which owns the rights to the men’s tournament and produces “the official March Madness app” without including even the women’s scores, would likely showcase an even greater divide.
This study only tracked coverage during the week of March 27-April 2, 2017. The websites were monitored three times a day during the week and twice on the weekends. The only television shows monitored were the general-interest shows on the main ESPN channel that aired between 7:00 a.m. ET and 1:00 a.m. ET — so, for example, all SportsCenter iterations and debate/discussion shows (Around the Horn, First Take, etc.) that aired during that window. More data, analysis, and information about our methods can be read below.
ThinkProgress checked the NCAA.com website three times per day — morning, afternoon, and night — during the week, and twice per day — late morning and night — on the weekends. Overall, we tallied 495 headlines about men’s basketball, compared to only 108 about women’s basketball — meaning men’s basketball took up 72 percent of the college basketball coverage on the NCAA’s front page that week.
The number of women’s basketball headlines only equaled or surpassed the number of men’s basketball headlines two times — during the women’s Elite 8 games on Monday night, when no men’s games were in play, and on the morning of the women’s championship.
Seventy-five percent of the time, there were no women’s basketball videos featured on the NCAA home page; there were typically eight men’s videos featured. Most of the time (63 percent) men’s headlines outnumbered women’s headlines on the site by 25 or more.
ThinkProgress checked the ESPN.com website three times per day — morning, afternoon, and night — during the week, and twice per day — late morning and night — on the weekends. We tallied the number of men’s or women’s college basketball stories above the fold (meaning stories that were displayed as a lead image or top headline), and 10 news groupings below the featured image.
The ESPN home page is the landing page for all things sports, so sometimes it was hard to find any college basketball headlines that fit our criteria. But overall, men’s basketball made the front page 70 times, while women’s basketball made the front page just 23 times.
The biggest difference was above the fold. Men’s college basketball was given a feature spot on the home page 26 times, while stories about the women only appeared above the fold three times.
On Monday, less than four hours before the women’s Elite 8 began on ESPN, there were no stories about the women’s tournament on the home page. No headlines about the women’s tournament were featured the morning after the women’s Final Four was set, or the morning and afternoon before the women’s Final Four tipped off.
There was regularly great coverage of the tournament on espnW, but that site is far less trafficked than the ESPN homepage. Additionally, the headline “Full NCAA Tournament Coverage” often redirected to the men’s tournament only.
ESPN Television Segments
From Tuesday, March 28 through Sunday, April 4, ThinkProgress analyzed the transcripts of 57 ESPN shows — SportsCenter (all varieties between 7 a.m. ET and 1 a.m. ET), Sports Nation, Highly Questionable, First Take, Around the Horn, Pardon The Interruption.
Our criteria were simple: any mention of women’s college basketball or men’s college basketball counted, even if it wasn’t directly tournament related. The segments did not need to be long to count — even a quick mention of an upcoming game or broadcast was okay. However, if the segments went on for more than five minutes, they would get counted twice.
Using these guidelines, we found that the men were included in 128 segments, while the women were included in 48.
The men benefited from the fact that the men’s NIT tournament was talked about a lot, and that there was sometimes on-air discussion about the history of the men’s NCAA tournament and talk about NBA draft prospects. This showcases how much more ingrained men’s college basketball is into our day-to-day sports culture.
The women, however, got a numbers boost because ESPN did a good job mentioning when their broadcasts of the women’s Final Four would be. Plus, UConn got a lot of attention, even before the big upset, which seems to negate any notion that UConn is hurting the game.
And notably, the coverage that ESPN did offer was wonderful, nuanced, and comprehensive . Women’s basketball faces many hurdles, including the fact that many people don’t know where to find information on it, since so many think of CBS as the only home for March Madness.
But, alas, there is good news — ESPN’s ratings for the national championship game were up 20 percent from last year, and it was the most streamed women’s championship game ever.