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Column: UNC, it's time to act like a women’s sports school

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It’s officially football season at Carolina, which means much of the buzz surrounding sports is for the athletes in football jerseys at Kenan Stadium. While women's teams, such as soccer and field hockey, simultaneously compete this time of the year, there is less conversation surrounding these teams. 

This focus on men’s sports is typically consistent for the rest of the school year, especially around basketball season when the men’s team dominates public discourse. But now is the time for this gender status quo to be challenged. 

Historically, women’s sports at UNC have produced many legends and successes that should merit the hype that men’s basketball and football receive. 

For example, the women’s soccer and field hockey teams have the most NCAA championships out of UNC's varsity sports programs, with 21 and 10, respectively. Many well-known names have also come out of women’s programs, including soccer legends Mia Hamm and Tobin Heath, as well as former WNBA player Charlotte Smith.

It makes sense why football and men’s basketball are put at the forefront of Carolina athletics – these programs have been around longer and are the most lucrative, which is true for college athletic programs beyond UNC.

This is not to say these men’s programs do not deserve the hype and success they have — only that we should devote this attention to women’s athletics too. The competitive talent and the successes of women’s programs have been here for almost as long as the history of UNC women’s varsity sports themselves – and they are here to stay. 

Just as much as the intense competition and talent are there in the women’s game, so are the fans. Recall this year’s March Madness: the women’s finals ratings hit a record high, while the men’s side took a record low. 

The UNC women’s basketball program has also seen recent growth with increased investments, from facilities to coaching. According to the athletic department’s 2021-22 financial report, the team’s head coach, Courtney Banghart, received the third-highest compensation in the department — but still nowhere near football head coach Mack Brown’s and men’s basketball head coach Hubert Davis' salaries.

This investment seems like it paid off. Last season, total attendance for women's basketball home games was up more than 18 percent since Banghart was hired in 2019.

The gender divide is still stark. Men's basketball expenses far exceed the women's side. The simple fact that the men’s team plays in a dedicated home venue with a capacity three times their women’s counterparts also shows the mismatch between the popularity of women’s basketball and the actual resources devoted to it. 

The Dean E. Smith Center, home to UNC men’s basketball, is one of college basketball’s largest arenas and dedicated exclusively to men’s basketball. On the other hand, the women’s team shares Carmichael Arena with volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling. This gap seems unreasonable, given the growing trajectory of women’s college basketball and women’s sports as a whole for audiences like TV. 

The growing popularity of women’s college athletics has shown that now is a critical time to engage. On Aug. 30, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s volleyball team broke the world record for highest attendance at a women’s sporting event, packing 92,003 fans into the Cornhuskers' football stadium.

The crowds are there, and so is the action. While UNC profits off of men’s basketball and football, it can stand to gain so much more by focusing beyond these two programs. With the consistent collection of accolades and their growing popularity, it seems a more imperative and safe bet to invest. 

Admittedly, the athletics department has much to deliberate with where to put and make its money, with challenges like having to adapt to the developments of name, image, likeness and conference realignment. Regardless, it cannot let this become a missed opportunity to capitalize on women’s athletics’ potential.  

UNC's women’s teams have fared just fine performing — and at times outperforming the men — in their respective sports with less visibility, but this doesn’t mean they don’t merit more. The women in UNC’s athletics are just waiting for the investment to catch up to their successes. 

More eyes are on women’s sports than ever, and the ball is in UNC Athletics’ court. 

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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