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The Big Ten Women’s Basketball Revival Is Complete

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
When Iowa knocked off the undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks in the Final Four, it was the culmination of a conference’s years-long effort to re-emerge in women’s basketball. Megan Kahn is here to make sure the conference keeps growing.

As Iowa took the court against LSU on Sunday, it was the first active Big Ten team to play in the Division I women’s basketball championship game since 2005.

It comes amid a year of unprecedented success for the conference — on the court, on TV, and in the stands. Not coincidentally, it also comes just two years after now-former commissioner Kevin Warren created the first senior-level position in conference history dedicated to the growth of women’s basketball.

That position, Vice President of Women’s Basketball, belongs to Megan Kahn, formerly of WeCOACH, a 501c(3) non-profit that focuses on education and professional development of women’s basketball coaches. When Kahn took her new post, Warren tasked her with strengthening and enhancing women’s basketball in the Big Ten.

This was in the aftermath of the disastrous 2021 NCAA women’s tournament that brought gender inequity in college athletics to the forefront of the national conversation. With a new light on the sport, Warren, a massive basketball fan himself, wanted to do right by his schools and enable them to compete at the highest level.

“He walks the walk when it comes to women’s athletics and elevating Big Ten women’s basketball,” Kahn told Boardroom. “He wanted to make sure that we were giving our coaches, our student-athletes and our teams every opportunity to be successful.”

It’s a tad disingenuous to leave it at “the Big Ten hired a VP of women’s basketball and now the conference has a team in the title game.” Kahn has been on the job for less time than Caitlin Clark has been on campus, and Kahn didn’t make a shot for the Hawkeyes this year.

But if you’re talking about the overall success of the conference this year? That has Kahn’s fingerprints all over it.

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The Big Ten Tournament Resume

It was never a question that the Big Ten was the best conference in women’s college basketball this year. Indiana, the conference’s regular season champion, was a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Its conference tournament champion, Iowa, just knocked off the mighty South Carolina Gamecocks. Maryland and Ohio State both reached the Elite Eight. Michigan won a tournament game for the fifth consecutive year. And further down the bracket, Illinois made it for the first time in 20 years and Purdue snapped a four-tournament drought to return to the Big Dance.

“There’s no doubt this was the best year for Big Ten women’s basketball in a long, long time,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said in the team’s pre-Final Four press conference. “We felt all year long that playing in the Big Ten has prepared us in this journey so far and whatever team that we play, if they try something different, well, one of the great coaches we have in the Big Ten has probably tried it against us already. Some of the unbelievable athletes that we have in the Big Ten has probably already done that to us.”

That helped Iowa stun the Gamecocks and a sold-out crowd in Dallas, 77-73, behind 41 points from Clark. And she did that in what may have been the most talked-about game in women’s basketball history.

Ray Katz, chief operating officer of Collegiate Sports Management Group and an adjunct professor at Columbia University, told Boardroom that he estimated around 4 million viewers would tune in for the game, which would break the previous record for a semifinal, set in 2013. The actual broadcast brought in 5.5 million viewers, making it the most viewed women’s hoops matchup since the 2004 battle between the University of Connecticut and Tennessee. To make that even more impressive, Katz notes, 25% fewer households have cable subscriptions compared to a decade ago.

Those are the numbers that Kahn wants to see as she continues to craft the most competitive league in the country.

Keys to the Megan Kahn Kingdom

Kahn took over her role in 2021, while the COVID-19 pandemic was still wreaking havoc on college basketball. She was unable to travel for the first few months of her tenure, but once she was able to get on the road, she could start seeing games in person, meeting players, and earning the trust of her league’s head coaches.

That last part proved imperative. In order to maximize exposure, the conference has had to be innovative. This could be as simple as adjusting the playing schedule so that high-profile teams played high-profile games in exactly the right time slots. Or, it could be unorthodox, like launching a fashion collab with the league’s best players. It also could mean hosting a biweekly podcast with Sirius XM, dedicated to women’s basketball, which Kahn does.

No matter what she tries, though, it requires some buy-in from the coaches and trust from the league office.

“[Warren] gave me the keys to the kingdom. There was no blueprint or playbook that said, go execute these things,” Kahn said. “And so it allowed me to utilize my strengths to be innovative and to think outside the box and to think about, ‘okay, we have this unbelievable product on the floor. What can I do to help build it off the court?'”

The hope is that what Kahn does in the Big Ten today will inspire other conferences to try similar practices on their own. Together, it’ll raise the profile of the sport and eventually improve the overall product.

It’s similar to what Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark has tried to do with men’s basketball, positioning his conference as a leader in the sport by expanding its presence in New York, turning its conference tournament into a cultural event, and making culinary waves along the way.

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There’s another side to this, though — one that doesn’t appear in the men’s game. Remember: Kahn took her position coming out of the debacle in the 2021 NCAA Tournament bubble. One of her main focuses, along with elevating the women’s basketball brand in the Big Ten, had to include highlighting and correcting the litany of inequities that existed before she arrived.

“There was somebody in a similar position to me on the men’s side,” Kahn said. “We didn’t even really have a budget. Nobody had served in this position so there wasn’t even a budget that existed.”

One concrete change that’s happened in the last few years: Basketball media days now feature the conference’s men’s and women’s teams, rather than holding separate events for each. It ensures that every media member who shows up to cover the men has the opportunity to do the same for the women. As a result, both sets of student-athletes have the same platform to tell their stories.

Tapping into the Potential

From media day in October to the NCAA Tournament in March, this has been a season of tangible successes for Kahn and the Big Ten. The conference has been, arguably, the most visible college basketball conference in the country.

Most notably, that’s meant putting two women’s basketball games on FOX this year, while the network is not contractually obligated to air any at all.

“They said ‘we want Caitlin Clark,'” Kahn said. “So we were able to plug and play some matchups for them that we thought would make great TV ratings.”

The excitement exists in-arena, too. It seemed like a week didn’t pass this conference season without a Big Ten team announcing record-breaking attendance numbers for a women’s basketball game. That includes Indiana selling out Assembly Hall for a women’s basketball game for the first time ever, and later, a record crowd watching Iowa defeat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game in Minneapolis.

The potential for that sort of buzz always existed, according to ESPN analyst and former Purdue head coach Carolyn Peck. It was just a matter of tapping into it.

She used the example of going back to West Lafayette earlier this year and seeing billboards with Purdue women’s basketball players on them.

“You gotta remind them,” she said. “You’re not going to win every game, but to keep the fan loyalty and to give it the treatment that you have given the men for so many years. Now it’s not either/or; it’s both.”

Peck also said that it’s important for the conference — with Kahn at the helm — to delve deeper into what they could do to maximize revenue in the women’s game.

“You’ve gotten about as much out of football as you’re going to. Men’s basketball, you’ve gotten as much out of them as you’re going to,” she said. “Your next revenue stream is women’s basketball because they’re playing in the big arenas, so you sell those tickets, you have captivated audiences that you can advertise in, you have a strong audience that attracts TV to come into your place. It used to be a situation where they had to give away tickets to get people there. Tickets in Dallas this weekend are more expensive than Taylor Swift concert tickets. It is a valued product.”

Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes reacts after a 77-73 victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks during the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Final Four semifinal game at American Airlines Center on March 31, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Sustaining Momentum

The next, natural question is how the Big Ten sustains its momentum beyond Final Four weekend.

If you ask the experts, it won’t be hard — at least in the near-term. Clark will likely be back at Iowa, along with a slew of budding stars around the league.

“Jaycee [Sheldon]’s coming back, Cotie McMahon is going to be a star,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said. “Iowa’s going to be really good again. Maryland — and who knows what happens with the portal — but just the way those teams play is really, really fun.”

“Really, really fun” seems to be how Big Ten programs have defined themselves, sticking with a high-scoring, fast-paced style. Lobo added that Indiana and Iowa were the top two teams in the nation in field goal percentage this year. She perhaps stated the obvious, saying, “it’s fun to watch teams make shots.”

Basketball fans seem to agree. Iowa’s Elite Eight win over Louisville had higher ratings than any NBA game shown on ESPN all season, as Clark and Cardinal star Hailey Van Lith went at it. Though the 97-83 Hawkeye win wasn’t the nail-biter many may have wanted, the teams obliterated the over. They combined for 180 total points, while Clark and Van Lith combined for 68. And Clark? She had the first 40-point triple-double in tournament history (41 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds).

Eventually, however, Clark won’t be in college anymore and it’ll be up to the next generation of stars to keep it going. In addition to Sheldon and McMahon at Ohio State, the Big Ten is adding UCLA and USC in two years, meaning Juju Watkins will suit up routinely on Big Ten Network.

As for Kahn, that means a few additional headaches in trying to put a league schedule together to accommodate teams on both coasts, while looking out for the student-athletes’ well-being. But it’s a good problem to have.

“When I see the Big Ten brands somewhere in the women’s basketball space, I want it to be big and bold and innovative,” she said.

With a Big Ten team battling for the championship, it appears the league has bought in.

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About The Author
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg is an editor and writer at Boardroom. He came to the brand in 2021 with a decade of experience in sports journalism, primarily covering college basketball at SB Nation as a writer, reporter, and blog manager. In a previous life, he worked as a social media strategist and copywriter, handling accounts ranging from sports retail to luxury hotels and financial technology. Though he has mastered the subtweet, he kindly requests you @ him next time.