The N.C.A.A. Division I women’s basketball tournament will expand its field to 68 teams beginning this season, the association announced on Wednesday, about three months afterthat college sports executives had long prioritized the men’s competition.
The decision represents the association’s latest effort to atone for — and move beyond — a self-inflicted debacle this year, when the N.C.A.A. faced condemnation forbetween its Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Although the N.C.A.A. had agreed to make some changes in recent months, such as using itsfor the women’s tournament, the expansion of the women’s tournament will directly affect the course of competition and the experiences of players and coaches.
The women’s tournament had used a 64-team bracket since 1994; the men’s tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011.
“This action corrects an inequity that has existed between the men’s and women’s championships for a decade and provides equitable postseason participation opportunities for Division I men’s and women’s basketball student-athletes,” Danielle Donehew, the executive director of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, said in a statement released by the N.C.A.A. “We are making progress in our efforts to address gender inequities in our sport, but much remains to be done.”
The N.C.A.A. said that it would hold the new opening-round games in the women’s tournament on college campuses in 2022 but that it would move them to a neutral site starting in 2023, much as the men’s tournament’s “First Four” showdowns have been played in Dayton, Ohio. The women’s opening-round games will feature teams seeded 65th through 68th and the last four at-large teams.
In a report in August, an outside law firm hired by the N.C.A.A. partly attributed the lack of expansion in the women’s tournament to the association’s organizational structure. But it also said that the growth of the men’s tournament had been partly intended “to maximize the value of the men’s broadcasting rights,” dollars that are the association’s financial lifeblood.
The television rights for the men’s tournament were worth more than $850 million this year and accounted for the vast majority of the association’s anticipated revenue. Although media consultants believe the women’s tournament could fetch more than $100 million annually in the coming years, the competition is currently part of a $500 million, 14-year package that includes many other N.C.A.A. events.
There had also been, the report noted, “no historical consensus” about whether expansion would benefit the women’s game, largely because of the longtime lack of. But the report urged the association to enlarge the tournament swiftly and said that investigators believed most people around the sport had come to support a bigger competition.
“In light of the approximately equal number of men’s and women’s basketball teams in Division I, there is no justification for the disparity in tournament participation opportunities,” the report said.
The 2022 women’s tournament is scheduled to begin on March 16, three days after the selection show. The national championship is scheduled to be contested in Minneapolis on April 3.