May 29, 2024

The women who lifted us

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This year, more people watched women’s basketball than any World Series game last year, any NBA Finals game last year and every Daytona 500 since 2013.

The championship game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the South Carolina Gamecocks brought in an average of 18.7 million viewers. It’s the most-watched women’s college basketball game on record (since 1992). Viewership peaked at 24 million.

It was the most watched basketball game, including men’s college and professional, in the last five years. In fact, if you remove football and the Olympics, it’s the most watched sporting event in the past five years. Viewership was up 89% from last year’s championship and 285% from 2022′s final game.

This level of attention didn’t come as a surprise. The Final Four game between the Hawkeyes and the Huskies had an average of 14 million views, peaking at 17.

It’s no surprise men’s sports have dominated the sports entertainment industry. From college to the pros, people statistically watch more men’s sports and the men are subsequently paid more.

On and off the field, the industry is laden with men. According to Zippia, 80% of referees, umpires and other sports officials are men. That number is even higher in basketball.

Nearly 88% of sports analysts, 83% of sports broadcasters, 91% of sports announcers and 89% of sports reporters are male.

Those numbers look different when you only look at women’s sports. Women are more welcomed when there aren’t men on the field or court.

Knowing the viewership coming for the Final Four and National Championship, the NCAA could have pulled its female analysts, announcers and referees in favor of their male counterparts. They could have said, these men are experienced in this big of a moment.

But instead, the NCAA used the opportunity to show how effective these women are in their roles. They showed women’s sports can be just as, if not more, entertaining.

Seven of the 11 selected referees for the Final Four and National Championship games are women. Melissa Barlow officiated her 12th women’s Final Four. Brenda Pantoja was selected for the eighth time and Gina Denise Cross was selected to work her fifth Final Four.

“These experienced officials delivered consistent and elite performances throughout the series of tournament games this year,” said Penny Davis, the national coordinator of women’s basketball officiating. “Their work on the floor has led to their selections for these upcoming assignments. It’s an honor to be selected for any tournament assignment, but to advance to these final games is not only an honor but bears an immense amount of responsibility.”

During the national anthem, the large flag on the court was held by the women of NASA. The crowd began to cheer as they were recognized. “Scientists, engineers and leaders from here in Cleveland and across the country,” the announcer said.

The in-arena announcer, also a woman, was able to deliver the same boisterous excitement you hear from male announcers.

Before the game and during breaks, the game cut to a panel of analysts — all women, and primarily women of color.

SportsCenter anchor and Women’s College GameDay host Elle Duncan led ESPN’s studio coverage, joined by Hall of Famer Carolyn Peck, Sports Emmy nominee Andraya Carter, and WNBA All-Stars Chiney Ogwumike and Aliyah Boston.

Boston, the 2023 WNBA rookie of the year and South Carolina alumnus wore her signature colorful box braids — this time in shades of purple and white mixed in with her natural hair.

A lot of people may have simply looked past this, but it stuck out to me. Women of color still have issues with Afro hairstyles, including box braids, being unfairly viewed as “unprofessional.”

A study by Harvard Business Review showed Black women’s hair was two-and-a-half times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional. In addition, one-fifth of the Black women surveyed between the ages of 25 and 34 had been sent home from work because of their hair.

In an arena where we are celebrating women breaking the mold, I appreciated Boston being there, showing hair color or style doesn’t impact professionalism.

Ryan Ruocco was the only man behind the the mic as play-by-play announcer while Rebecca Lobo served as analyst and Holly Rowe reported.

I’m sure many of us watched it beginning to end with no lapse in entertainment. All the women on the court and the two women behind the play calls did a fantastic job.

When South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley had a chance to tear down Caitlin Clark, she chose instead to thank her.

“I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport,” Staley said. “She carried a heavy load for our sport and it’s just not going to stop here on the collegiate tour, but when she is the number one pick in the WNBA draft, she’s going to lift up that league up as well.”

As I sit here, a female sports reporter in a sea of men, I’d like to thank all the women involved in the NCAA Final Four for their work lifting up women in our profession. It’s not just a man’s game anymore.

Cheyenne Roche

CHEYENNE ROCHE

Originally from Wisconsin, Cheyenne has a journalism and political science degree from UW-Eau Claire and a passion for reading and learning. She lives in Creston with her husband and their two little dogs.