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What the Men’s and Women’s NCAA Tournaments Can Learn from Each Other

For the first time, both the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments were branded as March Madness, but that didn’t fix every problem with both tournaments.

With the 2022 NCAA Division I basketball tournaments wrapped up, NCAA officials can go back to their headquarters in Indianapolis and try to make sense of the last three weeks. This was the first March Madness after last year’s reckoning on gender equity, and because of it, both events were under extra scrutiny — the women’s tournament especially.

Some of the major changes to the tournaments this year:

  • The women’s field expanded to 68, giving the women’s tournament its first First Four
  • The women’s tournament used March Madness branding for the first time
  • The men’s tournament added a gender identifier to much of its branding (“men’s Final Four” instead of just “Final Four,” for example)
  • Both tournaments reset their budgets and started from scratch to ensure equity in everything from players’ lounges at hotels to swag bags

Not everything went perfectly, but perfection should not have been expected in year one of a new era. Thankfully, each tournament offered plenty for the other to learn from.

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The First Four

The men’s tournament has featured the First Four on the Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday since 2011, and they’ve gotten it down pretty well. In a rush to expand the field after the Kaplan Report was released, the women’s tournament committee committed to 68 teams without first selecting a neutral site to host. That made for empty arenas on the campuses of higher-seeded teams already hosting the first weekend.

This problem is going to go away next year. The NCAA says future First Fours will be played at a neutral site, providing a destination for eight fan bases to travel to and creating some extra excitement around the event.

More importantly than the one-year problem of empty arenas, the First Four was completely overshadowed by the men’s First Four, which happened at the same time. There are two easy ways to fix that:

  • Move all of the First Four games to ESPN or ESPN2. This is the NCAA Tournament, and these are win-or-go-home games, and they were relegated to ESPNU the first night. By moving them to a more traditional network, you’re naturally going to get more eyeballs.
  • Reverse the order of the games. For the men, the two 16 seeds play first each night at the First Four with the at-larges playing right after. The women did that, too, which meant that while the men had their name-brand programs playing (this year it included Indiana, Notre Dame, and Rutgers), so did the women (DePaul, Dayton, and Florida State). If the at-larges get the early window for the women, then their biggest draws will be competing with two no-name men’s programs and will stand a much better shot.

The First Weekend

Should the men’s tournament try home sites for the first weekend? I’m not convinced — there’s just something about the neutral environments and the eight fan bases converging on one random city that gives the tournament a little extra magic. But here’s what can’t be denied: the atmospheres during the first weekend of the women’s tournament were electric. Way more so than most of the men’s games.

Note that this doesn’t need to happen. The crazy upsets that have come to define the men’s tournament are, no doubt, helped by the neutral setting. Do you really think St. Peter’s beats Kentucky if the game is played at Rupp Arena? I feel like we would lose some of the madness. That said, I do think this is something that should be discussed. As UConn women’s head coach Geno Auriemma points out:

“How many other sports play on neutral courts?” he asked reporters before the Sweet 16 in Bridgeport. “Men’s basketball. That goes to show you that not just anybody can do it.”

No one else does this. No one else starts their postseason at a neutral venue — not the NBA, not the NFL, not the women’s NCAA Tournament. It works for the men. But could it be even better on campus?

The Regionals

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The second weekend of the tournament was a perfect showcase for college basketball. Saturday started with three women’s Sweet 16 games, with the fourth being the only one that conflicted with a men’s game, as they started their Elite Eight in the early evening. The action concluded with Coach K prolonging his career and reaching the Final Four with Duke’s win over Arkansas. Sunday was a similar story, with the men playing their final two Elite Eight games in the afternoon and the women beginning their Elite Eight in the evening. Fans got to see men’s powerhouses Villanova and North Carolina return to the Final Four, while women’s blue blood Stanford and eventual champion South Carolina punched their tickets later.

This format should never change.

The one concern: moving forward, the women are going to move to two regional sites instead of four. The thinking here is to bring more fan bases together in a single city and avoid half-empty arenas in cities picked because of their geography instead of local interest in women’s basketball.

It makes sense, and on the surface it should work as intended. The problem is that it is going to make it difficult for some of the most loyal fans to see their teams. Next year, there are regionals in Greenville, South Carolina, and Seattle — perfect for Gamecock fans and not too bad for Stanford fans. But what about the other teams with rabid fan bases? There’s a reason Bridgeport is a frequent regional host — UConn fans fill arenas. They won’t be able to next year. And the year after, when the regionals move to Albany and Portland, it’ll be South Carolina fans left out.

You want to expand the game and increase the excitement around it, but not at the expense of your most loyal supporters.

The Final Four

The men’s tournament schedule has seemingly always been games the first two weeks from Thursday to Sunday, with the Final Four games on the Saturday and Monday of week three. That means, at worst, regional winners play their games on Sunday afternoon, fly back to campus, go to class for a couple days, then go to the Final Four host city on Wednesday for a Saturday game on six days of rest.

The women? Their games are Friday to Monday for the first two weeks with Final Four games on Friday and Sunday of week three. So here’s what Louisville had to do: the Cards played their regional final in the late-night window on Monday in Wichita, had to fly home that night or early the next morning, then turn around Tuesday and travel to Minneapolis for a game on Friday against the No. 1 team in the country. Meanwhile, Stanford, which played its regional final on Sunday, flew to Minneapolis early and watched Monday night’s games from the Twin Cities while Louisville had two flights to make before the media whirlwind of Final Four week.

The problem is you can’t move the women’s Final Four back a day because then it clashes with the men’s Final Four. The women used to play Sunday and Tuesday instead, but the championship game ended up being an afterthought with the men’s game coming before it.

The reasonable solution is to swap dates for the men’s and women’s Final Fours — have the men play Friday and Sunday and give the women Saturday and Monday. It would then give both sports the same amount of rest between the regional finals and national semis. Yes, the men’s championship on Monday night is a long-standing tradition that people would not like to see changed. But what difference does it really make? Anyway, this way you get to keep the first two weekends of the men’s tournament on the beloved Thursday-Sunday schedule.

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