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The NCAA made moves toward gender equality this March Madness, but there's work to do

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

It's down to the Final Four tomorrow in the Women's Division I college basketball tournament. Judging by TV ratings, crowds and just great basketball, the women's event has already been a success. But success this year was always going to be measured by how the women stacked up against the men's tournament. NPR's Tom Goldman explains.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: As far as 38-second videos go, this one packed a punch.

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SEDONA PRINCE: I got something to show y'all.

GOLDMAN: Sedona Prince, a player for the University of Oregon, put the video together at the start of last year's women's tournament.

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PRINCE: So for the NCAA March Madness, the biggest tournament in college basketball for women, this is our weight room. Let me show you all the men's weight room.

GOLDMAN: It was vast compared to the women's sad little stack of dumbbells. The video angered millions and forced an apology from NCAA President Mark Emmert. He vowed to address gender inequity in college sports. A months-long investigation confirmed the NCAA prioritized the wildly popular and lucrative men's tournament over everything else and undervalued the women's tournament. It set up this year's women's event as a test of whether fixes were happening. And the results are mixed.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Defense.

GOLDMAN: At last weekend's regional competition in Spokane, Wash., one obvious sign of change was right there at center court - the words March Madness, words and branding historically used only in the men's tournament. This year, the women were allowed into the exclusive March Madness club. In Spokane, players Lacie Hull from Stanford and Maryland's Katie Benzan talked about the new optics.

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LACIE HULL: One thing coming into the gym today - we were mentioning how the signage this year seems, like, definitely improved.

KATIE BENZAN: You know, it's great to see March Madness up on there and just equal playing field for both the women's tournament and the men's.

CHLOE BIBBY: Nailed it. Great job, Katie.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: Despite Benzan's support from her Australian teammate, Chloe Bibby, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer thinks the NCAA still hasn't nailed the important stuff. Similar branding and gift bags and food are nice, VanDerveer says, but important structural and financial differences remain. The men's tournament has a standalone and lucrative TV contract. It helps pay huge amounts to college conferences with teams in the men's tournament. The payments are called units. The women don't have that unit structure. Their tournament TV contract isn't nearly as rich, since it's bundled with more than 20 other women's championship events. VanDerveer says that has to change.

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TARA VANDERVEER: I think really the bottom line is, you know, it's a television package and it's a unit structure. And then when that happens, then we'll know it's serious.

GOLDMAN: NCAA critics say if the association valued women's basketball more, the women could secure that better TV package and its benefits. Certainly, the potential value has been on full display this March.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Brown-Turner ties it at 77. My goodness, what a contest.

GOLDMAN: Monday's round of eight thriller, a double overtime win by Connecticut over North Carolina State, drew the fifth-largest TV audience ever for a non-Final Four women's tournament game on ESPN. Attendance was at a record high through the tournament's first two rounds. And more good lower-ranked teams has led to some true March Madness upsets. Despite her concerns, VanDerveer, whose team plays UConn in the Final Four tomorrow, is pretty bullish about the women's game.

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VANDERVEER: We're finding our own way. We're growing our game. And I don't think we need to be in the shadow of men's basketball. I think that what we're doing right now is working.

GOLDMAN: But still, there's work left to do. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.