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NCAA has failed its women’s basketball tourney. There are solutions, with a little imagination. | Mike Jensen

The NCAA has set up a system that makes gender equity structurally impossible.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley shake hands after a 2015 game.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley shake hands after a 2015 game.Read moreJohn Woike / MCT

What if … just for the sake of argument, the biggest star in college hoops in some given year is on the women’s side?

Let’s say that year is 2022.

Outlandish, you say? That would be as crazy as suggesting the 400-meter women’s hurdles could have been the marquee event of Tuesday’s NBC prime time Olympic track coverage. Pride of New Jersey Sydney McLaughlin’s triumph in the 400 hurdles was superior television, live at 10:30 on the East Coast.

Back to basketball. You can make the point — and you would be correct — that the biggest name in college hoops right now is Paige Bueckers, University of Connecticut.

» READ MORE: NCAA fails its own gender equity tests

Look at her Instagram followers … 902,000 of them. The biggest returning name in men’s hoops? Given his 2021 NCAA Tournament exploits, let’s go with Johnny Juzang, UCLA, 107,000 followers.

Now, what are the odds the NCAA can fully take advantage of this exact kind of situation? … Like when, say, a Serena Williams takes over tennis, or a Katie Ledecky is the biggest name in the Olympic pool.

Precise current odds: 0.0 percent.

That’s the only way to read the study released Tuesday by Kaplan Hecker & Fink, the law firm commissioned by the NCAA to look at gender equity in NCAA basketball.

The study starts right where it should, noting the video that ignited this process, comparing weightlifting equipment at the respective NCAA men’s and women’s tournament bubbles. The disparity was undeniably pathetic.

How about this sentence right at the top of the study: “The NCAA also to date has successfully resisted the application of Title IX to the NCAA itself.”

Why? The disparities, the study concluded, “stem from the structure and systems of the NCAA itself, which are designed to maximize the value of and support to the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship as the primary source of funding for the NCAA and its membership.”

It’s been too easy for many of us to think the marketplace itself had determined the financial stakes of March Madness, not even realizing the women’s tournament was banned from using the phrase “March Madness”.

Did the NCAA treat the pursuit of March $$ as a zero-sum game, as if adding to the women would take from the men? It’s worse than that, reading this study. The leadership refused to even ask the question.

“The NCAA’s broadcast agreements, corporate sponsorship contracts, distribution of revenue, organizational structure, and culture all prioritize Division I men’s basketball over everything else in ways that create, normalize, and perpetuate gender inequities,” the study found.

Again, the NCAA itself commissioned this study: “At the same time, the NCAA does not have structures or systems in place to identify, prevent, or address those inequities.”

ESPN clearly didn’t commission this study, since it also concluded the network is right now getting a bargain showing the NCAA women’s tournament. This rightfully got a lot of headlines Tuesday, how the study commissioned an independent media expert, Ed Desser, “to assess the true value of women’s Division I basketball. Desser and his team estimate that the annual broadcast rights for women’s basketball will be worth between $81 and $112 million in 2025 — a figure multiples higher than what ESPN currently pays for an entire annual broadcast package that includes Division I women’s basketball as well as 28 other NCAA championships.”

Right now, ESPN is paying an average of $34 million a year for all that, compared to $1.1 billion for the men’s basketball tournament. If you merely look at the dollars as justification for treating the tournaments so differently, you’ve been able to pat yourself on the back. These fact-finders did not do that.

“Because CBS/Turner controls the sponsorship rights for all NCAA Championships but the broadcast rights for men’s basketball only, CBS/Turner is incentivized to create and encourage sponsorship opportunities for men’s basketball above all other sports … the cost of supporting the women’s championship is prohibitively expensive for many companies, shutting out sponsors who might otherwise be interested in supporting women’s basketball, but cannot afford the more costly sponsorship of men’s basketball.”

If it is a rigged game, it’s rigged by the very organization that could benefit from it not being rigged.

Another major point: Only men’s Division I basketball incentivizes schools financially to advance in the tournament. Gee, guess where resources then would be spent? The study notes that fewer disparities exist in Division II and III since nobody is chasing money, they’re just competing.

The study calls for some obvious fixing, such as changing the leadership structure so that there is coordination between the men’s and women’s tournaments, and develop equity in staffing. Just as important: “Market the rights to the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship as a stand-alone property. … Use ‘March Madness’ for both the Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships. … Negotiate for a new tier of corporate sponsors for the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship (and other NCAA championships).”

This finding may have gotten the most attention: “Hold the men’s and women’s Final Fours together in one city.”

Your initial reaction might be, wait, is that logistically possible? Anything is possible if there is a will to do it. Yes, hotel rooms are often taken in all the cities already. So find new cities. If only three or four have the space, then those are your host cities. (Las Vegas says, yo.)

From a media standpoint, this would be golden. For this market, for example. How can you not cover a Final Four if it includes Philly’s own Dawn Staley coaching South Carolina and Norristown-raised Geno Auriemma coaching UConn, with the added bonus of covering the men’s tournament, even if Villanova isn’t there?

To suggest otherwise is at least a failure of imagination. What it would be like to hold the U.S. Open all these years without Serena Williams? It’s your serve, NCAA leadership. Try not to foot fault before you get the ball back in play. It’s not just Paige Bueckers and her 902,000 Instagram followers watching right now.