There’s a lot of work still to do, but the number of quality teams in the women’s game is at an all-time high, and it’s worth celebrating.
Two things can be true at the same time: women’s college basketball has never been as competitive as it is right now and it can still get a whole lot better.
This year, there’s one clear favorite (South Carolina) and one clear primary challenger (Stanford). After that? You can reasonably make the case for about another dozen teams to make the Final Four. You can’t say that every year.
I hate comparing the women’s and men’s games because the sports are at two different points in their evolutions. The NCAA didn’t sponsor a Division I women’s basketball championship until 1982, 10 years after Title IX. Most major programs didn’t start investing in the sport until much later (and many have still failed to do so). But where the men’s game is now in terms of competitive balance serves as a good barometer for where the women’s game should aim.
If you asked me today to predict the four Final Four teams on the women’s and men’s side, I’d have two women’s teams in mind without even thinking about it. For the other two slots, there’s probably a 50/50 chance I can guess at least one of them. For the men, I’d be better off picking Top 25 teams out of a hat.
It’s OK to admit there are more good teams on the men’s side than the women’s – because there are. That should not take away from where we are now nor should it stop us from celebrating how we got here.
Women’s college basketball is just like any other sport — or any other thing, really; you get out of it what you put in. UConn doesn’t rise to women’s basketball prominence without committing to Geno Auriemma when he had more than enough opportunities to move on to programs more established at the time. Or without the university putting the women’s team in Hartford alongside the men, in a 16,000-seat pro arena.
Pat Summitt and Tennessee don’t set the standard for women’s basketball success without a university committed to growing the sport — so much so that Summitt eventually became the first women’s coach to earn a million dollars in a season.
It took a while, but others have started to follow suit. South Carolina could not have possibly known the home run it hit by hiring Dawn Staley in 2008 — or even three years later when the Gamecocks still had a losing record in her tenure. Staley made $650,000 a year in her first contract with South Carolina, which later increased to $2.1 million after the program’s 2017 national championship. That number is now $2.9 million. Staley has said it’s not about the money — and it’s wise to believe her — but if she’s shown anything it’s that she values those who value women’s sports. Would she have stuck around in Columbia if the administration was unwilling to demonstrate that? Thankfully for South Carolina fans, we don’t know the answer, as the Gamecocks won another title in 2022 and are the clear favorite to repeat in 2023.
And just like that, South Carolina is the premiere program in women’s college basketball, with UConn and Tennessee still routinely in contention.
A similar situation played out at Louisville, where Jeff Walz has elevated that program to previously unseen heights. Walz’s salary has steadily increased in his time at the helm, and he signed an extension earlier this year that will bring his annual salary to $2 million by the end of the deal.
It’s not just coach salaries, either. Look at Creighton, which had never won multiple NCAA Tournament games until last year’s Elite Eight run. That didn’t happen by accident. In 2019, the university completed a state-of-the-art women’s basketball facility. Now, the Bluejays are ranked 22nd in the AP Poll and poised for a second-straight trip to the tournament.
Work Left to Do
It’s going to take time for the Creightons of the world to go from good to great — to reach the level that South Carolina, UConn, Stanford, and Louisville have already achieved, but let’s think back a decade.
Breanna Stewart‘s UConn teams won four straight championships and were rarely challenged along the way. The Final Four was routinely the Huskies, Notre Dame, Stanford, and Baylor, with maybe one or two others sprinkled in. Those days were a necessary step in the game’s growth to show what could happen with proper investment – but we are past that.
We still aren’t at the point where a St. Peter’s-like run will happen in the women’s game. The talent hasn’t trickled down that far quite yet, however there’s no reason to think it can’t. The current generation of high schoolers are growing up in an era where women’s basketball is on TV — not as much as it should be, but you can find games on ESPN networks, Big Ten Network, CBS Sports, and just about anywhere else. The WNBA has also never been as popular as it is now. There are more basketball icons from more diverse backgrounds — everyone from Stewart to A’ja Wilson to Sabrina Ionescu to Jonquel Jones.
This needs to get even better. ESPN needs to show more women’s games on its primary networks and conferences need to stop burying so many games behind paywalled streaming services. The NCAA needs to continue to make strides in its effort for gender equity, making the game more accessible and making the experience more attractive for young athletes.
In the meantime, there’s a lot to celebrate. Let’s do that, and let’s keep asking for improvement.
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