Change is a notoriously slow process and that’s only if the powers that be want it in the first place. Hence how the NCAA found itself attempting to weather a blizzard of outcry over inequalities in its basketball tournaments last March.
With one click to her millions of fans, Sedona Prince pushed the first domino that ultimately created an inflection point in all of women’s basketball heading into the 2021-22 season. And with games well underway, changes are coming into focus in actionable areas not seen in the past.
“People who are trailblazers in this industry have been fighting these things for 20 years [and] have never made movement,” Megan Kahn, the newly named Big Ten vice president of women’s basketball, told Yahoo Sports. “And now suddenly in five and six months, we’ve made significant movement.
“We’ve never seen this investment, this kind of momentum like what we’re seeing right now.”
Kahn is the first to hold the position after commissioner Kevin Warren announced the role last month, telling Yahoo Sports it would be “one of the most important hires that I’ll make in my tenure.” She will report directly to Diana Sabau, the conference’s first chief sports officer, and be on equal footing with the VP of men’s basketball. Warren said he will also be heavily involved.
Her role is to promote and build Big Ten basketball, and it's a great time to do it. Four Big Ten teams remained in the Associated Press Top 25 this week — three are in the top 10 — following a record-setting number of tournament bids and Sweet 16 spots in 2021.
"The Big Ten is probably the best-kept secret in college basketball right now," Kahn told Yahoo Sports. "I think they traditionally haven’t gotten the respect that they deserve."
It will look to prove its dominant conference status on national TV with the Big Ten/ACC Challenge that began Wednesday. In an ESPN doubleheader on Thursday night, No. 12 Michigan plays No. 10 Louisville (7 p.m. ET) and No. 9 Iowa will play Duke (9 p.m. ET). No. 6 Indiana will host No. 2 N.C. State on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET.
A record-setting 12 games of the 14-game series will be on linear television, a welcomed change toward equity, but there's more Kahn has keyed in on before officially starting the job.
Big Ten VP focuses solely on women's hoops
Kahn’s hiring is itself an investment and a sign of momentum. Most conferences employ a senior executive in charge of men’s basketball, but none for women’s. The sport often falls by the wayside of leaders focused elsewhere, resulting in less guidance and attention. The gender equity report on the 2021 NCAA tournament put into clear terms how detrimental this is to the women’s side.
But now, in the Big Ten, women’s basketball will have its own sport-specific leader intent on growing the game and in turn lifting the entire sport on a national level.
"They have all the tools in place to be in that upper echelon, they just traditionally aren’t there because of just so many different factors with nobody really having the time," Kahn told Yahoo Sports.
The Big Ten is one of, if not the most, competitive conferences in women’s college basketball. Maryland, the nation's best offense in 2021, was briefly ranked No. 2 in the AP poll. Iowa sophomore Caitlin Clark is one of the most exciting guards in the game. Michigan's Naz Hillmon is a monster double-double threat night after night. Indiana is on the brink of breaking into the Final Four.
Every conference deserves someone who knows the product intimately in order to boost attention and in turn help the entire sport’s growth. Because if not, a 2021 tournament repeat is bound to happen when progress turns into regression.
Megan Kahn's background in Big Ten
Kahn is well-versed in the conference having grown up an Iowa Hawkeye and forging connections throughout the years at youth camps and recruiting. Playing with current Maryland coach Brenda Frese's younger sister is only one of her "fun facts" around the Big Ten.
She’s spoken to many of the coaches already as the chief executive officer of WeCOACH, a nonprofit committed to education and professional development for women’s coaches, and the host of a podcast with the organization. Her knowledge of the game — its struggles, successes, highlights and lowlights — is deep.
“I have a really solid understanding of the shoes that [coaches are] walking in,” Kahn told Yahoo Sports, “and have a lot of great, not only respect for them, but empathy in the pressure and the time commitments and some of those things that go on that not necessarily everyone in the public realizes what it's like to be a head coach.”
Not to mention the network of connections she can utilize to uplift the Big Ten specifically with direct contacts like Holly Rowe, Debbie Antonelli and LaChina Robinson at ESPN. Forget to mention a major Big Ten matchup or performance? Kahn is here to be in their ear.
What will progress look like?
Progress has to start internally before it can be seen outwardly, and Kahn said the conference’s work in the digital space, where consumers are now ingesting sports, will be a focus.
"There are a lot of things that we can do from a campus perspective [and] a Big Ten women’s basketball social media perspective," she told Yahoo Sports. "I think we can engage our teams and do a better job connecting with fans. There is so much that we can do at the tournament itself.”
As for the conference tournament, she does have a timeline there. By 2024 she said she believes the Big Ten can sell out the semifinals and championship game.
“There’s no reason why Big Ten women’s basketball isn’t strong enough," she told Yahoo Sports. "We should be able to make that a can’t-miss event.”
That translates into better TV spots and more attention on sports talk shows. The guiding force behind women’s sports, unfair as it may seem, is still that those inside the game have to force others to have no choice but to notice it.
Kahn fairly cautioned that any significant progress will take a while.
“The three of us are really cognizant to recognize this is a marathon not a sprint,” she said of herself, Warren and Sabau.
She’s focused on building a culture and fostering relationships with coaches who have been asking for change longer than some of their players have been alive. More movement will come.
“If you talk about what’s going to happen between now and March, yeah, we’ll see some progress,” Kahn told Yahoo Sports. “But if you talk about what’s going to happen between now and December 2022, I think we’ll see significant change.”