Expansion of Women’s Collegiate Tournaments in Wake of Gender Equity Reports

Updated: Aug 3



As we reported on our site back in October, the NCAA made the long overdue decision to commission an outside firm—Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP—to develop a gender equity report on the gender disparities between the men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments. This decision, made in the wake of the outrage sparked by the uncovering of the glaring differences between meals, facilities, and resources provided to each side of the tournament, led to the wildly unsurprising finding—the NCAA was spending far more money on its male student-athletes than it was on their female counterparts. Shocker.


Although some may have thought (or, in the NCAA’s case, hoped) that this would be the end of the line for uncovering these gender disparities within collegiate sports, that has turned out to be far from the truth. As of last week, after releasing a second gender equity report developed by Kaplan, the NCAA announced their approval for the expansions of both the women’s ice hockey and women’s beach volleyball championship tournaments. For ice hockey, this means extending the bracket from eight to 11 teams, while for beach volleyball, the expansion will present itself in conference automatic-qualifications, confirmation of at-large selection criterion, and improvements of the tournament’s overall format and logistics.[1]


The expansion of the brackets was not, to be clear, a product of the NCAA’s imagination. The law firm recommended this change as a part of their report, and they further challenged the NCAA with additional recommendations. These recommendations included, but were not limited to:

“establishing a system for collecting and maintaining standardized data across all 90 championships that will facilitate future gender equity reviews and audits, getting rid of gender modifiers on branding for the tournaments and championships, increasing the number of senior staff in the NCAA’s championships structure to improve oversight of gender equity,” and “conducting a “zero-based” budget for each championship over the next five years to ensure gender differences are necessary, appropriate and equitable.”[2]

This success did not come about solely per Kaplan’s recommendations, however. Fans and student-athletes alike took to social media to both place pressure on the NCAA and express their support of the #CloseTheGap campaign, one built upon the phenomenally upsetting disparities between men’s and women’s collegiate ice hockey. All across Instagram and Twitter, advocates posted a single picture displaying just some of the findings made by the firm in their second report. Proponents called for an increase of eight to 12 teams and highlighted the “gap” between the men’s and women’s brackets as follows: athletics programs spent $6,384 more on individual male ice hockey student-athletes, spent $3.5 million more on the male championship, and permitted 7.2% more men’s teams to be eligible for the famous Frozen Four.[3] To quote mixed martial artist Max Holloway, “Numbers don’t lie.”


But that’s not all, folks. On Wednesday of this week, the NCAA announced their approval of another expansion in women’s collegiate tournaments—this time for women’s basketball. Prior to the decision, the women’s tournament hosted 64 teams in comparison to the men’s 68.[4] As of this season and per the announcement, both sides will now host 68. In addition to this increase in women’s teams invited to the Big Dance, their Selection Show—typically aired on a Monday one day after the men’s—will be held on that Sunday, as well. For those of you planning ahead, double mark your calendars for March 13.[5]


The true hero here, besides the student-athletes who tirelessly advocated on their own behalf, is Kaplan Hecker & Fink. The firm’s efforts (and subsequent report) represent the need for the sports and legal fields to collide—and the success that can result from doing so. Although the NCAA was the body to effectively implement these changes (because they are the only ones with the ability to do so), let us remember that these disparities in treatment of male and female student-athletes are nothing new nor surprising. It took a third party coming in and ripping the curtain back for the NCAA to make the moves it surely knew were necessary for years now. That being said, let us also recognize that this is no time to take our foot off the gas—it is a step in the right direction, but a marathon still lies ahead.

[1] https://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/news/general-expansion-of-beach-volleyball-womens-ice-hockey-brackets-approved [2] https://www.espn.com/college-sports/story/_/id/32481915/second-ncaa-gender-equity-report-shows-more-money-spent-male-athletes-female-ones [3] https://twitter.com/hashtag/CloseTheGapNCAA?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw [4] https://www.espn.com/womens-college-basketball/story/_/id/32656250/ncaa-announces-expansion-women-college-basketball-tournament-68-teams [5] https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10018478-ncaa-womens-basketball-tournament-to-expand-to-68-teams-starting-in-2021-22-season