5 Questions on March Madness with Sports and Society Professor Mary McDonald
Posted March 15, 2022
Basketball courts, playing fields, and stadiums are all stages for storytelling, says sports sociologist Mary McDonald, and the NCAA Men's and Women's March Madness tournaments spin some of the most intriguing tales of the year.
As we anticipate the tournament tip-off, McDonald, the Homer C. Rice Chair in Sports and Society in the School of History and Sociology, offers insight into the intertwining narratives of gender equality, school identity, and more that will play out on basketball courts across the country this month.
Q: There are a lot of firsts in the women's NCAA tournament this year. The field expanded from 64 to 68 teams to match the men's size, and ESPN is using the term "March Madness" to market their tournament for the first time, as well. Why are these changes significant, and what are they doing to advance equality in college basketball?
MM: Well, to understand the tournament this year, you have to go back in history. But let's go back to a year ago.
Due to Covid, both the men and women were in different bubbles. Sedona Prince, who played for Oregon, filmed a viral TikTok and Instagram video where she showed the minuscule weight room the women had, compared to the men who had this big, massive thing. In the social media age, it was a marker of inequality that people could understand, because it was so stark. This spawned other storylines and narratives that culminated in the NCAA doing a gender-equity report admitting that it had fallen short in terms of equity not just in the bubble years, but in prior years.
The visibility that Prince brought to the issue also triggered investigative journalism. Sally Jenkins, the sportswriter, followed it up with a series of articles. One of the things that came out of the articles was how the NCAA has not sufficiently invested in the tournament, and in doing so, left money on the table while not promoting it. Basically, that the tournament has a much bigger value than the NCAA has admitted. In the past, the NCAA could have negotiated much better media deals — the value is now estimated to be about $20 million per year — but instead portrayed women's basketball as incapable of supporting itself, which it clearly is capable of doing. So, it was a series of things — investigative journalism, the athletes, the way images travel, and public interest — that revealed how women had been shortchanged for years at the NCAA level.
What you see too is also a growing interest in women's basketball that has taken place over time, so there's been a lot of confluence. It’s really interesting going into the NCAA tournament with all that has happened in the past year.
Q: Do you think this is a culmination of the push for gender equality or just the beginning?
MM: It always remains to be seen, right? If you know one thing about the history of women's sport in the United States, it's one step forward, two steps back. Because sport is historically built around masculine identity, it's seen as far more valuable for boys and men to be engaged than girls and women.
Now, we've had a generational shift where it is seen as valuable for women, too, but it's still not to the same extent, culturally and ideologically, that it is for boys and men. Certainly, this is a moment of narrative interruption right now. But given a history of exclusion, it always remains to be seen what the next step is.
Q: This is also the first tournament after the NCAA implemented the new rule allowing college athletes to monetize their likeness. Are you seeing or anticipating any differences between how that will play out for men and women this year?
MM: Yes, this will be the first March Madness post-NIL (name, image, and likeness) legislation. We're in a moment where this issue is still constantly evolving. But if we look at the men's Final Four last year, Jalen Suggs had a 40-foot buzzer-beater to send his Gonzaga team into the championship game. Media speculation after that shot centered around how much he would have made after that big play if NCAA rules had allowed him to monetize it
So, what does it mean that athletes own their name, image, and likeness? They can't get direct payments from colleges unless it's for educational expenses. So last year’s example would have been dependent upon Jalen's entrepreneurship, and that could have been anything from doing commercials to getting sponsorships to doing things on TikTok or selling selfies and his autograph.
The speculation was there last year because everybody knew this legislation was in the works. Now we'll have to see what kind of monetization activities happen; who's going to be the Suggs of these tournaments?
In terms of the women, there are already some who've gotten some lucrative deals, partly because they have more followers than the men on TikTok and Instagram and Twitter. People like Paige Bueckers, who plays for UConn, and Aliyah Boston, who plays for South Carolina, those types of players certainly will be getting opportunities and exposure that they can capitalize on.
But because everything is so new, and it's just now being documented, it's hard to understand what the gender disparities are going to be. Some of the current overall numbers that I've seen are about 65% of the opportunities go to men and 35% to women, although this varies by sport with football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball players appearing to get the most attention. I expect the numbers in this year's March Madness tournament will be unequal given the vast publicity apparatus around men's basketball and the history of the event, versus the more recently emerging sport of women's basketball.
Q: It sounds like since women are going to have the same number of games and the same amount of coverage this year, and with social media leveling the playing field, it's a good time for them to capitalize on these opportunities compared to the past.
MM: There's certainly opportunity here through social media, because social media helps you bypass some of those traditional gatekeepers. For example, even if the same number of women’s games are telecast, overall, the men’s tournament receives far more coverage across multiple media outlets.
College basketball for men has 120 years or more of history, and women's basketball has maybe half that or less. So, we're talking about real histories, and we're talking about masculine identities. Men’s sports have that historical and cultural advantage, but there certainly is an intervention happening right now for women athletes.
Social media has really helped to promote that and helped them get past the traditional gatekeepers. Having a good social media following, like several women athletes do, is seen as, in some cases, more lucrative than what traditional platforms have provided.
Q: Finally, can you tell us what it is that pulls so many people into the March Madness obsession? Is it the brackets, the Cinderella stories? What makes it so much more enticing than other sporting events?
MM: I think it's the identification with institutions for people who either went to college or live in a place that represents a region, like how Georgia Tech can, in some cases, represent Atlanta.
These historical associations around communities and identifications are important, and then you also have just the character of sport itself. Sport is an interesting combination of rule boundness and spontaneity. You have the predictableness of people following the rules and the strategies of the sport, but then all sorts of things can happen that are unexpected, like a 40-foot shot being made or a great pass that ignites.
This combination of the conventional and the unexpected then connects to other things, like the fact that universities often put their public face forward through sport. Universities have real marketing and fundraising apparatuses where they merge the emotionality of sport with other identifications. The legacy of March Madness continues to mobilize various emotions — elation, excitement, anxiety, disappointment, etc. — and the spontaneity of basketball provides a unique viewing experience.
Mary G. McDonald is a professor and Homer C. Rice Chair in Sports and Society in Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology. Her research focuses on American culture and sport, including issues of inequality as related to gender, race, class, and sexuality. Learn more about her work or contact her for media inquiries here.
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