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It’s a new name and a new era for women’s college basketball

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS – APRIL 04: Haley Jones #30 of the Stanford Cardinals celebrates a win against the Arizona Wildcats in the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 04, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

March Madness is officially here, and for the first time ever, it includes the women’s tournament. 

After last year’s weight-room debacle, the NCAA finally caught up with the times and expanded its March Madness branding beyond the men’s contest, making this year’s women’s tournament a first-of-its-kind. 

Some may say the new name is merely a cosmetic fix-up, a way to paper over the NCAA’s past missteps. I’d argue it’s the start of a new era in women’s college basketball, one in which we move away from treating the sport like a charity at best and an afterthought at worst, and instead realize the massive potential that’s waiting to be seized.

@sedonerrr it’s 2021 and we are still fighting for bits and pieces of equality. #ncaa #inequality #fightforchange ♬ original sound - Sedona Prince

Last year, the NCAA was rightfully put on blast by players, coaches, journalists and fans for the egregious inequalities between its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The men had a full multi-station weight room in their bubble. The women had a single rack of hand weights. The women’s food and swag bags were likewise inferior. 

The most outrageous part of the entire situation was the NCAA’s inability to foresee the backlash. They somehow thought it wouldn’t be an issue. The governing body of college sports didn’t care about the women’s tournament, and they assumed most fans wouldn’t either.

But these fans proved them wrong, not only in voicing their universal outrage, but by consistently showing up for the games themselves. 

Last year’s championship game between Arizona and Stanford averaged 4.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched finals since 2014. As the final buzzer approached, nearly 6 million viewers watched the top-seeded Cardinal squeak by the Wildcats. The semifinal games were likewise up 20 percent over 2019 as part of the most-watched Final Four weekend since 2012. 

These numbers point to a larger issue, one that goes beyond puny weight rooms and lackluster swag bags. While we certainly have to hold the NCAA accountable when it fails to do the bare minimum, the bigger problem has always been its failure to grasp the business opportunity presented by women’s sports.

In the aftermath of last year’s controversies, media rights experts estimated that the women’s basketball tournament could be worth $100 million a year in media-rights fees alone starting in 2025 (when its current deal expires). The NCAA, instead, has bundled the women’s tournament with 28 other sports championships and sold them to ESPN in a package deal worth about $34 million a year.

The weight room garnered the headlines, but it’s this systematic undervaluing of women’s sports that really needs to change.

Stanford’s Haley Jones celebrates during the 2021 championship game against Arizona. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Last year, every game of the women’s tournament was aired nationally for the first time ever. ESPN also put the Final Four games on ESPN instead of ESPN2. Massive viewership followed. 

That upward trend continued this year, with the season opener between South Carolina and NC State drawing nearly 700,000 viewers, making it the most-viewed opening game since 2013. A February contest between South Carolina and Tennessee later drew 876,000 viewers, and that same week, ESPN announced it had already sold out of its ad inventory for this year’s tournament. 

These companies aren’t buying ads out of the goodness of their hearts. They understand the present value and the future potential of women’s basketball, and they want in on the action. 

We’ve come a long way since Sedona Prince’s viral TikTok blew the lid off of things last year. But in order to keep the momentum going, all of us — from the media, to brands, to athletic institutions — need to start talking about women’s basketball not as a charity in need of baseline support, but as a historically undervalued asset that is ripe for investment. 

The NCAA might have only expanded its March Madness branding as a way to move past last year’s blunders. But whether the governing body of college sports realizes it or not, we’ve entered a new era in women’s sports. Fans and brands know it, and athletes are cashing in. From NIL deals for current college basketball players to million-dollar contracts for future NWSL stars, it’s clear the tide is starting to turn. 

March Madness is officially here. And with it, women’s sports is officially entering the era of big business. 

See you at tipoff.

Haley Rosen is the CEO and founder of Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @RosenHaley.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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