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Women Won March Madness on Social Media. What Happens Now?

Last Updated: July 21, 2021
Women athletes achieved nearly double the social media traction as their male counterparts during the NCAA Tournament, but huge disparities in coverage and opportunities remain.

On April 4th, San Antonio hosted one of the best games in March Madness history.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Arizona star senior Aari McDonald heaved a three from the top of the key that would have won it for the Wildcats as time expired. As the ball clanked off of the rim, McDonald fell to the floor and the Stanford bench cleared in jubilation. The Cardinal were national champions.

This year’s NCAA Women’s Tournament showcased countless unforgettable moments beyond just its nail-biting conclusion, however. From the fabled matchup pitting UConn phenom Paige Bueckers against Iowa’s Caitlin Clark to Stanford clinching the title with back-to-back one-point victories in the Final Four, it was Madness for the ages.

It also catapulted the phenomenal talent in the women’s game into an even brighter national spotlight. And these moves did not go unnoticed across social media, where women’s basketball scored win after win.

It makes you wonder about what would be possible if these athletes were permitted to monetize their names, images, and likenesses.

In addition to the 4.1 million viewers who tuned in to the final matchup on ESPN, the women made serious waves across Twitter and Instagram. Together, Stanford and Arizona generated over 40,000 social media mentions and nearly 170 million impressions.

As a result of this traction, Zoomph estimates the social reach of these two championship teams to be worth $1.3 (Stanford) and $1.8 million (Arizona) to date.

These are the metrics of a social media manager’s dreams. 

One of the most powerful forces behind those numbers? Arizona’s McDonald, arguably the biggest breakout star of the tournament — and a name to watch tonight at the 2021 WNBA Draft.

“After the game, she was really upset and I told her, ‘Look at what we did together.’ I am so proud of her, so proud of us. We fought. We were gritty. We weren’t afraid,” Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes said of McDonald during a Boardroom discussion on Clubhouse Monday night, adding that she’s backing the program’s all-time single-season scoring leader to make an impact that resonates at the professional level.

“She’s going to be great. She’s going to improve. Plus, she plays with a chip on her shoulder, and that won’t change,” Barnes said.

Last week, Axios reported that eight of the 10 Elite Eight players with the highest estimated value of social media reach came from the women’s field. These trends have maintained, and female athletes got double the social media impressions as their male counterparts during the Final Four.

Unfortunately, they also received lower levels of investment across the board from sponsors — and from the NCAA itself.

As it stands, the winning university doesn’t receive a single cent in bonus money. In contrast, men’s teams who make a Final Four appearance can receive upwards of $1.1 million each. These disparities have long been legitimized by the NCAA advisory board’s claims that the women do not drum up the same amount of attention and interest.

Independent inquiries, as well as these latest estimates regarding the impact of social platforms, have cast those calculations into serious doubt.

Social media has spoken, and the women are getting more of the attention they deserve. Now, it’s time for the NCAA, its affiliated sponsors, and the greater basketball establishment to catch up.

And with the WNBA Draft arriving tonight, these amazing athletes have their latest chance to show the skeptics what they’ve been missing.

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