NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Receives Clearance to Expand to 68 Teams, Matching Men

Last season's NCAA women's basketball tournament is proving to be a flashpoint for changes.

The start of that tournament is remembered for images of paltry weight-lifting setups and the large gaps between amenities for men and women in the tournament.

A leveling marker coming this season will take place when the women's tournament field is expanded to 68 teams to match the men, The Associated Press reported.

The men's tournament grew to 68 teams in 2011. It added four first-round play-in games at a neutral site, traditionally Dayton, Ohio. The first four women's games in the 2022 tournament will be held on the campuses of teams seeded in the top 16 this season, the AP reported. They will move to a to-be-determined neutral site for the 2023 tournament and beyond.

"This immediate expansion of the women's basketball championship reinforces the fact that leaders within Division I are committed to strengthening aspects of the women's basketball championship that directly impact student-athletes," said West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons, the chairman of the Division I Council.

"We look forward to the positive change this will have for the student experience at the championship," Lyons said, "especially as it relates to equal team opportunities to compete in the tournament."

The women's selection show will also be moved from Monday to the Sunday before the tournament begins, joining the men's show.

A gender equity review by an outside firm also recommended the NCAA consider a joint Final Four with the women and men holding their games in the same city on the same weekend. The earliest that could happen would be 2027 because Final Four sites are set for the next five years.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

NCAA women's basketball, Auriemma, NCAA Tournament
Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma reacts in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Hartford, Conn. This year's field for the women's tournament is expanding from 64 to 68 teams. Jessica Hill/AP Photo

The expansion of the women's tournament was among the recommendations put forth in August after a comprehensive external gender equity review conducted by the law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink. It was commissioned after backlash driven by social media of disparities in the men's and women's tournaments, including weight rooms and other facilities.

ESPN will broadcast the first four games along with the rest of the women's tournament. The network is also moving its selection show for the tournament from Monday to Sunday — the same day as the men. It's the first time since 2005 that the women's bracket will be announced on Sunday.

"The expanded bracket and championship opportunities for Division I women's basketball student-athletes are paramount," said UT-San Antonio athletic director Lisa Campos, the chair of the Division I Women's Basketball Oversight Committee.

"This is a transition year for the tournament, and strong consideration will be given for other improvement areas, including opening-round games taking place at a predetermined site, in order to improve the championship experience."

Other recommendations include exploring a joint Final Four with the semifinals and title games held in the same city on the same weekend, though that would not happen until at least 2027 with sites already locked in until that point.
The NCAA already had approved the women's tournament using the phrase March Madness in its branding.

"This action corrects an inequity that has existed between the men's and women's championships for a decade," Danielle Donehew, executive director of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, said about tournament expansion, "and provides equitable postseason participation opportunities for Division I men's and women's basketball student-athletes."

NCAA women's basketball, Auriemma, NCAA Tournament
A dejected Aari McDonald #2 of the Arizona Wildcats sits on the court after missing a last second shot allowing the Stanford Cardinal to win in the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 04, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. The women's tournament will add play-in games this season. Elsa/Getty Images