Battle 4 Atlantis part of bigger spotlight for women’s hoops

Connecticut’s Aaliyah Edwards, left, and Texas’ Sonya Morris, right, fight for the ball on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Texas guard Sonya Morris had long noticed the number of big matchups in early season tournaments to stir men’s college basketball and the buzz that came with them.

She’s eager to be part of a similar bump for the women’s side, too.

“When I was in high school, I would always see men’s tournaments like this, from college and even high school teams being able to travel,” said Morris, a graduate transfer from DePaul. “The fact that women’s basketball can now do it and be on the same platform — get more views, more awareness, more eyes on us, I think it’s great.”

Morris’ third-ranked Longhorns are part of the second-ever Battle 4 Atlantis, which opens play here Saturday with No. 6 Louisville, No. 11 Tennessee, UCLA, South Dakota State, Rutgers, Marquette and Gonzaga. It’s the headliner on a growing number of events offering a bigger early spotlight on women’s basketball alongside the men, from brand-name programs to wide TV distribution in some cases.

“I think a lot of (people) are saying, ’Oh wow, there’s actually value in women’s basketball, we should get involved, too,” said Lea Miller-Tooley, the founder and director of the Atlantis tournaments.

“I think there are some events starting this year that are understanding that. … There’s no denying the power, strength and publicity that women’s basketball has been getting has never been higher, and we’re proud to be right in there with one of the strongest events in women’s basketball promoting the sport.”

That rise in prominence has come less than two years after the glaring inequity issues that emerged in how the bubbled men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments were handled in 2021, including the allocation of resources to athletes and even the quality of the swag boxes of gifts. But that also included criticism of how the NCAA withheld “March Madness” branding from the women’s tournament and whether there was more TV money being left on the table in current media deals.

That’s why Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at Central Florida, is encouraged to see more events coming with the backing of broadcast partners and corporate sponsors.

“They’re not investing because they are necessarily supporting women’s rights,” said Lapchick, whose group issues annual report cards on diversity hiring practices for college and professional sports. “They know there’s a larger interest in the public and can make money and grow the game.”

There have long been established and successful neutral-site women’s tournaments and events: the Cancun Challenge in Mexico, the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, even elsewhere in the Bahamas in Bimini with Goombay Splash that includes No. 9 Notre Dame next week.

But Atlantis’ debut last year represented a marquee brand tied for years to the high-level men’s tournament held at a sprawling resort, down to having a 1-vs-2 title matchup between eventual NCAA champion South Carolina and national runner-up Connecticut. And it came as another basketball event involving men’s and women’s teams took shape at Nassau’s nearby Baha Mar resort in this nation of about 700 islands.

“We’ve had some (events) for years, but not the number that we have now,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “I think that number has grown as women’s basketball has grown. I think there’s so much parity also in women’s basketball right now. There are a lot of really good teams, so more tournaments can pop up and have really good competition at their tournament.”

More events are ahead to carry that momentum. There are two brackets for both men and women for the tournaments honoring Nike co-founder Phil Knight in Oregon through the Thanksgiving holidays, featuring No. 4 Iowa, No. 5 Connecticut and No. 7 Iowa State.

And in December, there’s the launch of the Jumpman Invitational in Charlotte, North Carolina — a three-year event featuring the men’s and women’s teams of the first four Jordan Brand schools in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Michigan and Florida.

That makes two new events this year for the 13th-ranked Tar Heels, who also play in next week’s Phil Knight Invitational.

“This is another entity saying, ‘We want you.’ That’s a big deal,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “So for the Jordan Brand to say they want Michigan and Oklahoma and Florida and Carolina women in this thing for a three-year gig, that’s different than us calling Oklahoma and saying, ’Let’s play.’”

“They’re going to see that there’s a market for that.”

Enough so that many of these events are going to get widespread TV exposure.

The first two days of the Battle 4 Atlantis women’s tournament will stream on FloHoops, though Monday’s championship will air on ESPN while the third-place game will go on ESPNU. The Phil Knight Legacy and Invitational bracket games will appear on the ESPN family of networks as well as one on ABC, while the Jumpman Invitational women’s games will appear on ESPN2.

And that, as UCLA coach Cori Close said Friday, is how “these tournaments keep the conversation going.”

“I think it’s great for women’s basketball because you see it a lot on the men’s side,” Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith said. “Like, right out of the gate, all the top teams square off. and it gets fans excited and it gets attention around the game. I think it’s great the women’s side is start to follow suit a little bit.”