Scenes from the Baylor Bears’ national championship win over Notre Dame at the 2019 Women’s Final Four (Evert Nelson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
STUDENT ATHLETES

Why Can’t One City Host the Men’s and Women’s Final Four?

The NCAA would face real challenges putting the men’s and women’s Final Four in the same locale. Here’s what they would have to do to make it equitable.

Before the NCAA can officially announce anything, it must first announce the intention to explore the possibility of doing something. Such is the way of things when bureaucracy, red tape, and heel-dragging are involved. And the organization did just that when its women’s and men’s basketball committees voted to discuss hosting their respective Final Fours in the same city.

(Though no sooner than 2027, because this is the NCAA.)

On the surface, it sounds like a dream scenario for basketball fans — the chance to watch two championships and six total games featuring eight of the best teams in the country all in one weekend. And it does have the potential to be truly remarkable.

But it’s also going to be tough to pull off not just logistically, but equitably.

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How We Got Here

The 2021 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments provided a masterclass in how not to ensure gender equity and then how not to respond to the earned backlash. Fans watched last March as women’s players shared viral photos and videos of an inadequate weight room, unappetizing meals, and disappointingly generic NCAA swag compared to the significant perks available on the men’s side.

This prompted an emergency press conference in which NCAA executives apologized but offered little in terms of solutions or any sort of plan to prevent future issues. In fact, the problems that were not publicly called out persisted, including a significantly reduced media hub compared to the transcripts and assets available to those covering the men’s game.

Ultimately, however, the NCAA commissioned law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP to perform an external review of gender equity issues within its championships. KHF came back with several recommendations in August, including that the NCAA begin to use its famous March Madness branding in women’s basketball as well — something it has always been able to do, but had exclusively reserved for the men’s tournament on an official basis. The NCAA announced in September that it would do so, but notably did not commit to branding the tournaments equally.

The same-city Final Four was another recommendation from the KHF review. Many met it with skepticism, noting that it could result in the women’s Final Four being marginalized in relation to the men’s side.

That’s a reasonable concern.

It’s also avoidable.

How to Make it Work

1. Play both Final Fours in a football stadium

This is the most important point for several reasons.

Optics. By putting the women in a 20,000-seat basketball arena while the men play in front of 80,000, the NCAA would essentially be saying the women’s tournament is secondary. Forget about draw; the women don’t have any problem selling out the NBA arenas they play in for the Final Four, and would certainly draw more in a larger arena — even if it’s still fewer people than the men.

If you want the women’s game to grow, you need to give it room to do so, and a football stadium would already be reserved for the weekend and configured for basketball.

But it’s more than just appearances. It would simply not be practical to play the women’s Final Four in a basketball arena when it is sharing the stage with the men. The demand, both by fans and media, would be out of control.

Media. The NCAA already has to fit national media, local media, college papers, TV, and radio covering four teams into one NBA arena for the women. Speaking from experience, the quarters are already tight, but workable. Now bring in hundreds of additional media members in town for the men’s tournament.

CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander, who covers men’s basketball, said on his podcast that he would be interested in covering the women’s Final Four if it was in the same city as the men’s. And he should be able to. He has a massive following of basketball fans, many of whom probably don’t follow the women’s game. He can bring the sport to thousands who wouldn’t otherwise follow. A few would, inevitably, stick around in the future. It’s good for the sport.

But at the same time, you can’t use Norlander (or others) to block out the women’s basketball bloggers who have been covering the game for years for little or no money. Even if their audiences are smaller and their sites don’t get as much traffic as a giant like CBSSports.com, their fans are the ones that have made the women’s game as popular as it has become.

They’re owed the same dignity.

Capacity. Simply by having thousands more basketball fans in the same city, the ticket demand is going to increase — Especially if a school like Baylor sends both its teams to the respective Final Fours. A football stadium that the women might not sell out can accommodate that, while an already sold-out basketball arena cannot.

That so few fans actually have access to Final Four tickets only exacerbates the problem.

Just about every NCAA school — Divisions I, II, and III — sends its coaching staff to the Final Four for the annual WBCA convention. The NCAA sets aside game tickets for those coaches as well, taking up literally thousands of seats in an already packed arena. Add in student allocations, player family allocations, pep bands, and everything else, and the percentage of actual non-student fans in the seats is much smaller than you’d think.

Maintaining the same limited ticket supply while drastically increasing demand would price out far too many would-be spectators.

2. Make Fans — Not Coaches — the Priority

Prioritizing fans outside of the arena is just as important. The Final Four needs to be in a city that can lodge thousands of additional visitors. Even if you select a city with both a football stadium and enough hotel rooms, the immediate issue becomes the influx of men’s and women’s coaches. It might be necessary to move the NABC and WBCA conventions to another time.

This gets tricky, because immediately after the Final Four, the April recruiting period typically begins; perhaps the solution is to schedule it during a recruiting dead period.

The easiest solution would have been to put it in Vegas in July when thousands of coaches flock there for recruiting events, but the NCAA has already ruined that by decimating the recruiting calendar, but perhaps there’s a similar city the would be open to hosting men’s and women’s grassroots tournaments over the summer at the same time. Last year, the conventions were held virtually due to the pandemic, and while it wasn’t ideal, it showed that it’s not 100% necessary to have every coach in America converge on the Final Four, taking thousands of tickets and hotel room blocks away from fans.

3. Embrace Cross-promotion

Simply by bringing more basketball fans into a city, both Final Fours will experience increased demand. Let them feed off of each other. Combine the Fan Fests into one event, allowing attendees to transition seamlessly from a photo with a men’s tournament legend to an exhibit exploring Pat Summitt’s impact on the game of basketball.

Then, fans can sit back as usual and listen to the pep bands from each participating school rile everyone up.

2016 Final Four Fan Fest at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas (Matt Marriott/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Don’t segregate the open practices, either — hold them on Thursday instead of Friday. Free, open practices on Final Four Friday on the men’s side draw thousands of fans. They’re also not real practices, per se — they’re fan and media spectacles. Moving them to Thursday is not going to affect anybody’s routine. Alternate the men and women in an eight-hour, all-day event. (And that way, if you have two programs from the same school, they can practice back-to-back.)

The Final Four has its pre-made schedule with “Game 1 lower seed” taking the court at a specific time, but that doesn’t have to be written in stone. Make the schedule once all eight teams are determined in order to draw the greatest level of sustained interest.

Let the women play on Friday and the men on Saturday, as they do now. This would put the women’s title game on Sunday, which is traditionally the slowest day at the men’s Final Four. The men bring more media members overall, and they’ll be much more likely to cover the women’s championship on their off day rather than stick around for a Tuesday final or cram a doubleheader into Monday (when more than a few are hungover from a late Sunday anyway).

Trying to make an event like this work is going to be difficult. But difficult is not impossible.

The NCAA just needs to show its willingness to step up.