The 2021 NCAA tournament provided everything a hoops fan could want and showcased what the sport can become.
Adia Barnes has spent over half her life in women’s basketball. Along the way, the Arizona coach has made dozens of connections, so she wasn’t surprised when some of them reached out during the Wildcats’ inconceivable run to April’s national championship game. Yet, it was messages from people she didn’t know that made her appreciate the magnitude of the moment.
“I got DMs from like Doc Rivers,” Barnes says. “He DM’d me about our team and how I’m doing a great job. It was touching for me that they paid attention. They cared.”
Such was a major question during this one-of-a-kind tournament in San Antonio, which televised every game nationally for the first time in women’s NCAA tourney history: How many people cared? The initial returns conveyed a clear sense that the NCAA didn’t—at least not as much as it cared about the men’s tournament. But those public disparities didn’t stop the players from knocking down contested threes, weaving through the lane on acrobatic layups and conveying a pure sense of joy to play the sport they love. Through the ecstasy of winning, heartbreak of losing and all the small moments in between, the players and coaches drew eyeballs—both intentionally and unintentionally—to the sport of women’s college basketball.
“It will be looked at as a turning point for the popularity of this game,” says ESPN broadcaster Ryan Ruocco, who called play-by-play for the women’s tourney. “All those people who sort of just tuned in out of curiosity ended up getting presented with this incredible, riveting tournament and a ridiculously entertaining property.”
Already, the recognition has reached a point where Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, fresh off a national championship, says random people on the street stop to congratulate her when she walks her dogs—a far cry from when VanDerveer grew up without even the opportunity to play organized basketball herself.
“We’re connecting now with the random Joe guy on the street, and it’s exciting,” she says. “That will help our sport grow and become more mainstream, and I think that’s the direction we’re going in. It’s a good direction.”
Barnes almost didn’t have kids because of her job. I have to time the baby so I have it in April or May, so I don’t have to travel, she thought.
When she became pregnant last year with her second child at 43, she was caught off guard. She wound up giving birth on Sept. 15, right before the season started. “It wasn’t how it was supposed to be, but you make it work,” she says.
Throughout the NCAA tournament, Barnes made it work, but in far-from-ideal circumstances; she had to curtain herself off in the locker room to breastfeed before games.
“There was no thought of a woman and a family. It wasn’t even on the [NCAA’s] radar at all,” she says.
But Barnes being Barnes, she made the best of the situation. This wasn’t about her or her family, she thought. This was about the athletes who’d worked so hard for this opportunity to compete on the national stage.
As Arizona reeled off win after win, upsetting Texas A&M and then UConn, Barnes began to draw more recognition, not just as a coach leading her team on a Cinderella run but also as a mother, succeeding at the highest level of her profession.
“To have a working mom, it’s really a tremendous example to a lot of people that it’s not exclusive and you don’t have to be a certain way, a certain type, a certain gender, a certain ethnic background,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma says. “Hopefully that’s an eye-opener for a lot of presidents, a lot of ADs and a lot of universities around the country.”
While Barnes wanted the focus to be on her team, she also recognized the message she was sending by juggling her responsibilities in a very public setting.
“You can be a mom, and you can be a great coach,” she says. “It doesn’t mean because you’re a mom you have to coach at a lower level. It doesn’t mean because you choose to be a mom that you can’t be at a Power 5, dominant school. It doesn’t mean you can’t be good at it. Does it look different? Yeah. Do I have less time to hang out with friends? Totally. Is my house maybe a little messier? For sure. But it’s what I choose. Maybe I watch film a little later. Maybe I watch it a little earlier. But I’m a better coach because I’m a mom. I’m a better role model. I’m an example every single day of what these kids can aspire to be.”
When Caitlin Clark committed to Iowa, she brought her unlimited shooting ability to a program that hasn’t reached the Final Four since 1993. Though her team couldn’t cultivate the same magic as Barnes and Arizona, Clark captured the spotlight for one of the highlights of the tournament: a Sweet 16 game against Paige Bueckers, a matchup between two freshman phenoms.
Two players with similar skill sets, they shined a light on the new level of athleticism overtaking the sport. Bueckers became the first freshman to win the Naismith Award for women’s basketball, while Clark led the country in scoring with 26.6 points per game and was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Clark admitted to having some nerves in the early going against Bueckers, but that didn’t stop them both from showcasing their pinpoint passing and smooth shooting.
“The hype and excitement around the game, that’s what you want,” Clark says. “Both being freshmen, it really showed people the future of the game because we’re gonna be playing in college for the next three years. It just shows that there’s such an exciting future in women’s college basketball for sure.”
The audience captured for that game provides a glimpse of that exciting future. This was the first time this century that women’s tournament games aired on ABC, and more than 1.5 million people tuned in for Iowa-UConn, the second-most ever for a women’s Sweet 16 game.
As the broadcaster who needs to help draw in people’s attention, Ruocco says seizing a narrative like the one Bueckers vs. Clark provided is key. When you’re trying to make people want to watch a sport they’re less familiar with, he believes they need to see more than just the game itself. He thinks chess provides a useful analogy.
“You’re probably not gonna be that riveted watching two people play chess. But if it’s your kid, you will. You’ll be totally into it,” he says. “It’s about how do you—for the people who don’t yet understand how great the pure action and entertainment is of women’s basketball—rope them in with stories?”
The sheer talent of Bueckers and Clark made that quite easy, though, as Auriemma points out, there have been many matchups between players of similar prowess in the past that didn’t garner this level of attention. The enhanced media coverage and the addition of social media to the equation have played a massive role.
“This one just had all the makings of must-see TV in a lot of ways,” Auriemma says. “Going forward now I think fans are going to come to appreciate the players and their performances and what they’re capable of doing because I think the media did a really, really good job of bringing those stories and bringing those two kids to your house and bringing them to your attention.”
Each year, VanDerveer runs a basketball camp for 8-year-olds, and she explains to them how these opportunities for girls to play organized basketball didn’t exist when she was their age.
“Well, why not?” VanDerveer recalls one of the kids asking.
She wasn’t sure what to say, so she asked the kids.
“Sexism!” another 8-year-old said.
“The young people now, they don’t know anything different,” VanDerveer says. “They’re amazed that that’s how it was, and they can’t even fathom that. Unfortunately, some of the people that are in charge of athletics are not living in this time, 2021. We’ve gotta get away from hot dogs for the girls and steak for the boys.”
The outcry on social media after Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a TikTok showing the weight room disparity more akin to a bag of chips for the girls and steak for the boys did more than force the NCAA to do the right thing; it made people aware. As Clark puts it, the ramifications moved well beyond the San Antonio bubble.
“A lot of the disparities were brought to the attention of really, the nation, not even just the sports world,” she says. “There were male athletes and famous reporters using their voice and stepping up and saying we need to change things.”
Even Barnes, who was in the bubble, says she wouldn’t have found out about the weight room fiasco if it weren’t for social media.
“I would’ve never gone to look at the men’s facility,” Barnes says. “I just would’ve assumed, ‘Oh, they probably only have dumbbells, too. Maybe they have a couple more sets.’ [When I saw] the picture, I was like, ‘Woah.’ Stuff like that won’t happen again. It’s gonna change things forever.”
Beyond the NCAA’s initial misstep, though, the tournament garnered significant attention on social media for the thrilling nature of the games themselves. Clark-Bueckers; UConn escaping against Baylor; Arizona upsetting UConn; Aliyah Boston’s heartbreaking miss—there was no shortage of good basketball for the fans.
“Right now, we have an opportunity; they want to watch,” Auriemma says. “They want to support the sport, and we now have to do our part.”
One way the sport has grown? Increased parity. In 2017, South Carolina won its first championship. The following season, Notre Dame won its first title in 18 years, and then earlier this month, Stanford won its first since 1992. After UConn won four straight championships from 2013 to 2016, it’s no longer the Huskies and everyone else.
“We’ve lost in the Final Four four years in a row, and there’s a feeling like our program is falling off the face of the earth,” Auriemma says.
As the second-longest-tenured head coach in women’s college basketball, Auriemma has witnessed the sport’s development firsthand. And while he admits the sport may never reach the popularity that the men’s NCAA tournament creates during his time coaching, he sees an opportunity to invest more in the women’s game.
“March Madness is about upsets. March Madness is about the little guy beating the big guy. March Madness is about players you’ve never even heard of exploding on the screen,” Auriemma says. “We have to create that. We as coaches. We as players. We have to continue to create what [Arizona star] Aari McDonald did. That has to happen. But it can’t happen unless the schools say, ‘We want this on our campus. We value it. We have to have it.’ [Then] you have better programs, more competition, more teams sneaking into the tournament, more upsets, more Cinderellas going to the Final Four. You’ve got the semblance of what men have created with March Madness.”
If the fan support is any indication, Barnes thinks these changes will continue to come for the better.
“They’re paying attention and they’re appreciating good basketball,” she says. “That was touching to me because I’ve been around it so long. I was playing in college [and] from the start of the WNBA. I’ve seen the changes. I love it.”
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