In some ways, it was much like the NCAA women’s finals held in previous years in San Antonio. Scalpers hawked tickets along the roads leading into the Alamodome. Groups of college-age fans shouted their favorite teams at strangers in the stadium hallways. Beer still cost $8 to $9.

But in many more ways, the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball final, which saw the indomitable Stanford Cardinal triumph 54-53 against the underdog Arizona Wildcats, was nothing like previous years.

Temperature checks haunted every entrance, and constant signage reminded fans to keep their masks and their distance. Owing to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that limited attendance to 17%, ribbons blocked off entire rows, and bags covered most chairs. Some sections were filled with cardboard cutouts that gave the momentary appearance, at least to players, of a fuller audience.

The NCAA announced last month that proceeds from fans buying the $100 cutouts, discounted at $50 each for college students, will go to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, which funds cancer research and programs benefiting underserved women fighting cancer; the Pat Summitt Foundation, which funds Alzheimer’s disease research and supports patients and caregivers; and the San Antonio Food Bank, which fights hunger across southwestern Texas. 

The pandemic last year prompted organizers to cancel the women’s tournament for the first time since its creation in 1982. The 2020 men’s tournament also was canceled. This year each was held in a single metro area to simplify logistics, with all 67 games in the men’s tournament held in Indianapolis and all 63 games in the women’s tournament held in San Antonio and surrounding cities.

A stadium worker holds up a sign reminding fans to wear their masks during the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament between Arizona and Stanford on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
A stadium worker holds up a sign reminding fans to wear their masks during Sunday’s game at the Alamodome. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

While the 2002 NCAA final in San Antonio broke the record for the highest attendance at a women’s basketball event, with a crowd 30,000 strong, this year’s game on Easter Sunday might have broken the record for the lowest attendance.

But with your eyes closed, it wasn’t obvious. The empty space only amplified and echoed the crowd’s cheers and chants. The applause for hometown player Kiana Williams, playing for Stanford, was particularly deafening.

The decibel level only increased as the score held even through most of the first two quarters. Most in the stands supported the Arizona Wildcats, who had never played for the women’s championship before this year and who Friday night scored an upset victory against powerhouse Connecticut.

“Everyone loves a Cinderella story,” said Sue Wagner, a fan who drove down from Minnesota with her wife to meet some friends and watch the games.

Another fan, Karen Rudolph, who lives in San Antonio, said she was there to support women’s athletics in general. A former athlete herself in high school and college, she said she knows firsthand how women’s athletics are often forced to “take a backseat” to their male counterparts.

Those inequities were on display earlier in the tournament, when some athletes took to social media to highlight the initial disparity between their weight room and the men’s. Women were at first given a single stack of free weights in their practice room at the Henry B. González Convention Center. By contrast, the male athletes in Indianapolis enjoyed a massive, state-of-the-art weight facility.

The NCAA soon after acknowledged the gulf between the two tournaments as “disappointing” and, together with local organizers, scrambled to secure new weight-lifting equipment and expanded gym facilities. Oregon’s Sedona Prince, whose viral posts originally sparked the scandal, thanked the NCAA and its women’s basketball division for listening. “All of the teams appreciate you,” she tweeted.

  • Stanford celebrates its win over Arizona in the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Arizona guard Aari McDonald (2) shoots a last-second shot over Stanford forward Cameron Brink (22) and guard Lexie Hull (12) during the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Arizona guard Aari McDonald (2) lays on the court after missing a last-second, go-ahead shot as Stanford forward Cameron Brink (22) and guard Lexie Hull (12) celebrate their victory in the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Stanford celebrates its win over Arizona in the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Arizona guard Shaina Pellington (1), guard Aari McDonald (2) and coach Adia Barnes react to losing the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament against Stanford on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Stanford celebrates its win over Arizona in the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • A family of Arizona fans takes a photo during the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament between Arizona and Stanford on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Arizona guard Shaina Pellington (1) defends Stanford guard Jana Van Gytenbeek (4) during the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Arizona forward Lauren Ware (32) reaches for a loose ball as Stanford forward Cameron Brink (22) falls during the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Among rows of cardboard cutouts, an Arizona fan cheers on her team against Stanford during the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Stanford players celebrate their win over Arizona in the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.
  • Stanford forward Cameron Brink holds up a piece of the net after defeating Arizona in the championship game in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday at the Alamodome. Stanford held off an Arizona comeback to win the title, 54-53.

At the Alamodome, despite the audible efforts of Arizona’s fans, Stanford held a steady lead going into the third quarter, and then into the fourth. Then with two minutes left, the score tightened to 51-50.

“It’s anyone’s game. Nothing is assured,” said a fan in a Stanford shirt, Melissa Tamas. She and her husband flew here from Stanford to support their 15-year-old daughter, a high school basketball player and NCAA fanatic back in California. She wasn’t able to take the time off school to come herself, though Tamas said she was watching at home.

Five seconds left. An Arizona player made one final, desperate toss. It missed.

The buzzer sounded, confetti poured from the ceiling, and everyone in the rows – even the Arizona fans – stood and applauded.

The cardboard cutouts, however, were unmoved and silent.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.