By Laine Higgins

Connecticut will aim to win its seventh title in the past decade when the women's NCAA tournament gets underway in San Antonio on Sunday. Yet even if the No. 1 seeded Huskies cut down the nets, neither the university nor its athletic conference, the Big East, will see a single additional cent from the NCAA to reward their tournament run.

Women's college basketball is growing in popularity, with TV ratings and ticket sales improving rapidly. As an economic opportunity, however, it is still mostly an afterthought in the NCAA's overall picture.

March Madness for the men is a multibillion-dollar gusher for the NCAA, thanks to its recently extended $19.6 billion, 22-year deal television deal. Teams and conferences benefit from that bounty. A team's Cinderella run can pad its conference's financial coffers for years.

The broadcast revenue generated by the women's tournament, however, is just a slice of NCAA's deal with ESPN for championships in 24 other men's and women's sports, which runs through 2023-24 and is worth about $500 million over 14 years -- or about $35 million annually. The women's basketball tournament doesn't turn a profit, nor does the NCAA factor its results into its annual financial distributions to schools as it does for the men.

There appear to be no plans to change that. According to NCAA vice president for women's basketball Lynn Holzman, conversations about changing the March Madness bonus equation to include women's results "have not gotten to the level" of the NCAA Board of Governors or the Division I Board of Directors, which have the power to effect such a change.

The NCAA annually doles out money to conferences from its "Division I Basketball Performance Fund" based on the results from the men's tournament, with teams earning one "unit" for every tournament game appearance until the Final Four. The total number of units each athletic conference accrues during March Madness generates payments over six-year rolling periods. The payment for the most recent tournament in 2019 stood at about $280,000 per unit.

A run to the men's Final Four in 2021 could generate an additional $1.1 million payday for the conference every season until 2027. A team could win the women's title for years in a row, as UConn did from 2013 to 2016, and never see an additional penny.

The difference between the two tournaments received unwelcome attention in another way on Thursday, when sports performance coach Ali Kershner from top-seeded Stanford tweeted the disparity in training equipment given to the women in San Antonio -- 10 yoga mats and 16 dumbbells no heavier than 30 pounds per team -- and the men, who have access to a sprawling professional-grade weight room in Indianapolis. In a statement, the NCAA attributed the differences to "limited space" in San Antonio's 514,000 square foot convention center.

"Women's basketball is way down in the hierarchy of what's important," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College.

The equation for allocating riches from the NCAA tournament was adopted decades ago and, according to an NCAA spokesperson, is still used because the bulk of the organization's revenue comes from the men's Division I basketball tournament. Of the $1.1 billion the NCAA brought in during the 2019 fiscal year, March Madness accounted for $867.5 million, or about 79%, of revenues via the lucrative television deal with CBS and Turner Sports.

Holzman said that the NCAA's core purpose isn't to make its championship events profitable but "to provide a great atmosphere for our fans and our student athletes." She added, "If there are increased ticket sales and there are other aspects that come in that is an obvious benefit."

Lumping the women's basketball tournament in with every other championship "speaks to the negotiation tactics" that "have never been about women's sports," said Lindsey Darvin, an assistant professor sports management at SUNY-Cortland who studies gender equity in sports. She added that the NCAA could likely strike a much richer deal for the women's tournament in a renegotiation.

The NCAA declined to say how much revenue the women's tournament generates, only that it is not self-sustaining. Operating costs for women's March Madness are considerably lower, as first- and second-round games are typically held on the campuses of higher-seeded teams rather than neutral sites and brackets are drawn up to minimize cross-country travel.

"I don't see how it's possible that they're not turning a profit, especially with how much they're doing to cut costs," said Darvin, a former basketball player at Bryn Mawr College in Division III.

The value of the women's tournament has undoubtedly grown in recent years. Before the pandemic curtailed the 2019-20 season, demand for tickets to regular-season women's games was surging across the country, sometimes outpacing demand for men's games.

Nina King, chair of the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee, said that interest carried over into the postseason. "We're setting records in terms of attendance at all the rounds," she said. "Our last Final Four in Tampa was record setting and we were hoping to do so in San Antonio in the Alamodome because it's so big."

Due to pandemic restrictions, however, attendance at the 2021 Final Four will be capped at 17% capacity, about 5,000 people.

The profile of women's hoops is also on the rise. With few household names on the men's side last season, the biggest star in college basketball was Sabrina Ionescu, who made Oregon women's hoops must-see television.

Ratings for the 2019 women's Final Four rivaled those of the top men's regular season games during the 2021-21 season. Over 3.6 million viewers tuned into the 2019 championship game between Baylor and Notre Dame, a 24% increase from 2016, at the height of UConn's dominance.

These upward viewership trends helped persuade executives at ESPN to broadcast all 63 games of women's March Madness nationally for the first time in 2020, a move that ultimately was pushed back one year by the coronavirus pandemic. The extra games are part of the existing 24-sport contract and it's unclear if the network's move resulted in additional payments to the NCAA. ESPN deferred comment to the NCAA, who would not say whether the increased exposure would yield additional revenue for the women's tournament.

"The leadership isn't pushing for this," said Darvin. "The NCAA as an overall leadership organization and those that are part of these [television] negotiations are holding the women back."

Write to Laine Higgins at laine.higgins@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

03-19-21 0824ET