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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Analysis: The growth of women’s sports has achieved true (March) Madness

    South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley celebrates after the Gamecocks won the national championship April 7 in Cleveland. South Carolina defeated Iowa 87-75, with the game, televised by ABC, peaking at an all-time high 18.9 million viewers. (Morry Gash/AP Photo)
    Fans wait to get an autograph from Iowa guard Caitlin Clark after a women’s college basketball game Feb. 8 in Iowa City, Iowa. As Clark has become the face of women's basketball, her face is everywhere. She has lucrative NIL deals with Nike, Gatorade, Buick and was featured in a State Farm commercial with Jimmy Butler and Reggie Miller. (Charlie Neibergall/AP File Photo)
    Toronto's Jocelyne Larocque, top, slides into the boards with Montreal's Kristin O'Neill during the second period of an PWHL hockey game in Pittsburgh on March 17. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)
    Montreal head coach Kori Cheverie, center, gives instructions during the first period of an PWHL hockey game against Toronto on March 17. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)
    Norwich Free Academy teammates celebrate their win over Manchester during a Class LL state tournament first-round girls’ basketball game Feb. 26. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    NFA’s Sophia Milner, left, wrestled in the 138-pound division this season at the CIAC girls’ state championship meet. (Photo courtesy of NFA athletics)

    Women’s sports have shown exponential growth throughout the years. According to an ESPN graphic on March 25, 2024, viewership of the women’s NCAA women’s basketball championship game more than doubled in the span of one year. The title matchup between UConn and South Carolina in the 2022 tournament registered 4.9 million viewers, while the national championship game between Iowa and Louisiana State in 2023 notched 9.9 million viewers. This year, the number doubled again, with 18.9 million watching South Carolina and Iowa.

    The women’s college basketball tournament has shown tremendous growth not only in terms of attraction but branding, as well. According to Fortune, 87 brands were featured in the Women’s March Madness tournament, doubling revenue compared to last year.

    Before 2022, the women’s college basketball tournament wasn’t called “March Madness,” as the men’s tournament has been dubbed for years. In fact, the women’s tournament was simply called the “Division I women’s basketball tournament.” This sparked an accusation of inequality toward women’s college basketball.

    It wasn’t until 2022, more than 40 years after its inception, that the women’s NCAA tournament was finally allowed to be branded as “March Madness.” This created a positive step forward for not only women’s college basketball but also women’s sports in general; the men’s basketball tournament is not the only tournament being called “March Madness” anymore.

    Controversy with regard to the March Madness label wasn’t raised until March of 2021, when a former player for the University of Oregon, Sedona Prince — she played this season at Texas Christian University — posted a TikTok to raise awareness for the women’s basketball tournament and its inequality.

    Prince posted a video which first highlighted the inequality of the men’s and women’s weight rooms at their respective Final Fours, later posting more videos about meals and gear to spark more significance to women’s sports inequalities. Meals were a whole buffet for men while women only had to-go meals.

    The video sparked millions of reactions, not only from Americans, but also internationally. This allowed for a whole new weight room setup overnight for women’s college basketball teams, buffet meals and more gear: March Madness branded gear. Allowing this to carry over to other women's sports advocates, Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird and A’ja Wilson spoke out on how proud they were for these young women to have a voice in this world.

    Not only has the branding of “March Madness” on the women’s side grown, but brand partnership for women’s basketball has also improved. University of Iowa phenomenon Caitlin Clark has secured promotional deals with well-known brands.

    Nike, Gatorade, Buick and State Farm are just a few of the brands now partnering with Clark, who is expected to be the top pick in Monday’s WNBA Draft. Gatorade made a commercial of her called “You Can Too,” featuring footage of Clark playing basketball as a child.

    Also appearing in commercials with Nike and State Farm, Clark is not the only high-profile player in women’s college basketball Paige Bueckers, a UConn guard, also has large brand deals. Nike, Dunkin’ and Bose are among the many brands that Bueckers has endorsements with.

    These large brands have helped women to have a voice not only on the court but off the court, as well. These companies recognize the potential for growth in women’s sports, and are attaching themselves to female athletes, creating relationships that are valuable for companies.

    Certainly, women’s sports aren’t completely equal yet compared to men’s. One big disparity is the area of equal pay. However, through continual growth and advocacy, women's sports are no longer on the sideline.

    On Feb. 3, the Hartford Wolf Pack hockey team celebrated National Girls and Women in Sports Day to honor the growth and development of women’s sports. The event, held at Hartford’s XL Center, aimed to show girls that they can leave a mark on not only sports but the world at large.

    The Wolf Pack hosted a panel of three women who worked in the sports industry discussing their experiences for a crowd made up primarily of Girl Scouts and other young girls who attended the event before the Wolf Pack’s game. For years, women’s sports have been considered the minority, making it hard for women and girls to participate in athletics, changing as of late.

    The Professional Women's Ice Hockey League (PWHL) was created in 2024. This allows younger girls to have a future in the sport of ice hockey that can lead them to making large amounts of money later in their future.

    Laura Brennan, one of the assistant coaches for New York’s PWHL team described it: “There are other leagues before that haven’t stood the test of time so hopefully this league with all the best players playing together will be able to do that.”

    Ashley O’Connor is ESPN’s Senior Director of Programming & Acquisitions. She stands in charge of the network’s coverage of the NBA, WNBA and combat sports such as boxing and Mixed Martial Arts. Growing up, she played sports, but once injuries restricted her from play, she started volunteering with the high school girls’ soccer team, channeling her love for sports into a career in journalism.

    Her journey into the sports industry was very unique. O’Connor said: “I worked in college athletics before ESPN, specifically in two mid-major conferences where I oversaw championships, basketball scheduling, and officiating.” O’Connor indicated that she was fortunate to have those opportunities through internships, but few other women had access to such experiences.

    Women’s sports is on the rise, with data indicating that growth will not stop any time soon.

    No matter what age you are, from a little girl to playing pickleball at your local community center, women are now able to be a part of sports.

    Occasionally, The Day will publish sports stories by local high school journalists. Caroline Goderre, a sophomore at Norwich Free Academy, writes for her high school’s website “NFA Red & White,” hoping to pursue a journalism degree in the future. She is the No. 1 player on the NFA girls’ golf team. In her free time she enjoys hanging out with her family, traveling and editing videos.

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