AARON BEARD - AP Basketball Writer
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament typically has the biggest spotlight when it reaches the Final Four, with the best teams – or luckiest – to have survived March Madness playing the final games to determine a national champion.
Now imagine how it could look with the women’s tournament bringing its Final Four to the same city on the same weekend.
The idea of a combined Final Four sounds attractive as a showcase for Division I college basketball and it is also one of the key recommendations in a scathing report examining how the NCAA conducts its championship events when it comes to gender equity.
The review by law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP came after the NCAA failed to provide similar amenities to the teams in the men’s and women’s tournaments earlier this year. The report is full of recommendations, but the one that drew the most immediate attention is combining the national semifinals into one action-packed weekend in a single city.
The idea would be to potentially increase the sponsorship and promotional opportunities to help grow the women’s game. That would be a way to remedy a system that thus far, according to the report, has been “designed to maximize the value and support" for the men's tournament as the NCAA's primary revenue-producting event.
The report calls a combined Final Four “the best available means to grow women's basketball and create equity” between the tournaments and suggests moving to that model “preferably no later” than the 2022-23 season. It also suggests holding them for at least 3-4 years for the NCAA to fully assess the impact.
“Put simply,” the review states, “without combining the Final Fours, the women’s championship will continue to have a different look and feel from the men’s championship” until the NCAA’s multimedia agreement with CBS and Turner to carry the tournament expires in 2032.
“The suggestion that we test it makes sense particularly from the sponsorship side of the equation as we are limited by the current men’s basketball contract to change any of the broadcasting and sponsorship elements to 2032 at the earliest," said Rich Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. "It’s unfortunate we can’t separate those agreements earlier.”
A combined Final Four makes sense to Kirk Wakefield, a professor of retail marketing at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business.
“The research I’ve done for years shows that the physical facilities and environment that you’re having any event matters: the venue location, the attractiveness, the whole experience for sure matters,” Wakefield said. “So if they are demonstrably different, then people respond to that."
Part of that value is in perception, with Wakefield noting that pairing the events would help in the “positioning of it in people's minds to see it as comparable.” As the report notes, two tournament's worth of fan bases showing up in a city could create additional tickets to the women's event.
“What is true in general in promotion and marketing is it's better to make the big bigger rather than trying to go promote the thing that's not as big separately,” Wakefield said. "You're better off making that big weekend the biggest weekend you can than trying to come to Tuesday night because you're just working against the odds.”
But there are obstacles, starting with the fact that the NCAA has already announced Final Four venue choices through 2026. The men are set to play in New Orleans in 2022, followed by Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio and Indianapolis. The women will play in Minneapolis next spring, followed by Dallas, Cleveland, Tampa and Phoenix.
The report notes the recommendation doesn't come "lightly,” noting it would require the NCAA to work with host cities to change plans. And host cities would need to find enough hotel and event space to manage a bigger event than planned, a challenge faced to an even greater degree by multiple venues in Indiana and Texas to keep the each of the 2021 tournaments held entirely in one state due to COVID-19 protocols.
“It is critical, however, to make this change and to do so quickly to take advantage of the current momentum, to demonstrate the NCAA's significant commitment to change... and to capture the strategic value that combined Final Fours could yield for future contract negotiations,” the report states.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer texted AP: “I am not sure about a double tournament??? Who gets the best hotels? Etc? But I am open to it!”
Washington State men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith said he supported holding all national championships — all three divisions, both men and women — in a single site while UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma said “it's worth a shot” to combine the Final Fours.
“It’s worth a try,” Auriemma said. "It’s been done successfully with tennis and the Olympics. Will there be enough coverage spread around that no one gets lost in the shuffle there? That’s the question.”
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg and AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.