Although the NCAA Division I men's basketball championship budget for the 2018-19 season was $28 million -- almost twice as much as the women's budget -- information provided by the NCAA on Friday also shows the men's tournament brought in a total net income of $864.6 million that season. The women's event lost $2.8 million -- the largest loss of any NCAA championship.
In light of the recent disparities between the men's and women's tournaments that have been made public this month, ESPN and The New York Times requested NCAA tournament budgets for this season, but NCAA officials said the most recent and available data is from the last fully completed set of championships, which is 2018-19 because of the pandemic. The 2020-21 budgets are expected to be similar to the data provided Friday.
The NCAA announced Thursday that it has hired a law firm to conduct an independent gender-equity review of its championships across all three divisions and for all sports. Kathleen McNeely, the NCAA's chief financial officer, told ESPN on Friday that the external review will help determine whether the budgets are a part of the issue but that there are reasons for the discrepancies.
"They have different budgets, but the difference in the budgets is because of the scale of the two tournaments," McNeely said, "... and the nuances in the delivery, which tend to be committee decisions on how they're going to deliver those championships. I'm not saying there might not be minor issues, but in my opinion, there is a lot of parity between the men's and women's basketball tournaments as we look at it from an individual student-athlete experience, which tends to be our focus."
According to the NCAA, its championship budgets are determined and approved each year. The current tournament budgets were determined last June but have been completely changed because of the pandemic. The NCAA won't know the full tally until it's over, as it's estimated to cost $14 million to create the men's "bubble" experience, including COVID-19 testing, and $16 million for the women's bubble. McNeely said the NCAA is paying roughly the same amount, about $2 million each, in testing alone at the tournament sites.
The NCAA's board of governors has ultimate approval over the championship budgets, which are recommended by the board's finance and audit committee.
The men's tournament budget for the 2018-19 season was $28 million, while the women's was $14.5 million, but the NCAA points to "key differences in tournament structures" that resulted in lower costs for the women's championship. This year's women's tournament, which is taking place in San Antonio, is unique because typically the women's first- and second-round games are played on campus and hosted by the higher-seeded team. That format was agreed upon in 2014 to help grow fan interest and attendance. In the men's tournament, all 32 first- and second-round games are played at neutral sites and result in additional expenses. The men's tournament also has four more teams and an additional round (the First Four).
The NCAA points to the savings made by the reduced expenses for those games as the biggest component explaining a large chunk of the discrepancy in the budgets, but in the information provided to ESPN, the organization specifically details a difference of only $7.1 million:
• $2.7 million in travel: Only seven men's teams drove to games, while 16 women's host teams didn't travel for the first and second rounds and another 16 drove.
• $1.7 million in per diem: The NCAA said per diem rates, even in high-cost cities, are the same for the men and women. With 16 women's teams hosting games in the first two rounds, though, the NCAA said there was savings in costs for food and hotel expenses.
• $1.1 million for an additional round: The men's tournament pays for the First Four, which the women's tournament doesn't include.
• $1.6 million for facilities: The men's Final Four includes additional seats (and storage costs) to convert a football stadium into a basketball arena. The costs for women's basketball build-outs are generally less than $20,000.
"For me, it's important for the fans to understand that the policies around the men and the women's tournaments are the same policies," McNeely said. "They have the same rules around how much the schools reimburse for per diem, they have the exact same travel policy ... the goal of all of that is that the experience for the student-athlete is a great experience, it is a like experience and that we are providing the same opportunities for the student-athletes regardless of the tournament they are playing in."
Information provided by the NCAA also shows a stark contrast in total revenue. The men generated $917.8 million, including media and ticket revenue, while the women generated $15.1 million, also including media and ticket revenue. Total attendance accounts for some of the disparity, as the men's basketball tournament had 690,000 fans, while the women's tournament had 275,000 fans.
The women's tournament isn't the only sport that loses money. The NCAA hosts 90 championships across its three divisions, and only five of them generate any profit. The money is lost simply because the expenses required to put on the championship outweigh the revenue brought in, including TV money.
According to the NCAA, the men's basketball tournament pays for nearly every other NCAA championship across all divisions except for four: baseball, men's ice hockey, men's lacrosse and men's wrestling, all in Division I. These championships also generate more revenue than expense and help cover the costs of other championships. Because the NCAA is a private organization, it is not subject to Title IX rules or Freedom of Information Act requests. NCAA president Mark Emmert was not available for comment Friday but is expected to address the media next week.