Kim Mulkey remembers playing in the very first NCAA women's basketball tournament, when she made the all-tournament team after winning the title with Louisiana Tech. The now LSU coach remembers celebrating at center court, hugging her teammates, all clad in the same baby blue uniforms with collars and sleeves.

That feeling of elation existed before in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women's national championship. But 1982 was the first time the NCAA supported both a men's and women's March Madness.

Well, actually, it was only March Madness for the men. The women weren't allowed to use that branding until this year's tournament, which culminates in Minneapolis' Final Four from Friday through next Sunday at Target Center.

A year out from 2021's COVID bubble tournaments that revealed a plethora of inequities between the men's and women's events, the NCAA has made some changes to rectify those problems, thanks to a gender equity review known as the Kaplan Report. Some adjustments were seemingly simple, as the March Madness branding and upping the tournament from 64 to 68 teams, like the men's side has been since 2011.

There's no doubt the women's tournament has grown and developed throughout the past 40 years. The game itself, for example, changed when teams started playing with a smaller ball in 1984 or when the three-point line expanded to fit WNBA and international standards ahead of this season.

But in many ways, the progress of the women's tournament has stagnated, compared with how the men's has soared.

"Our game is growing," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "The men probably exceed all of that. We got that. You know why they exceed? Because someone invested in them. Someone saw how big it could become. And at the same time, they're holding down us from becoming as big as we can.

"I don't know if we can be a billion-dollar, revenue-producing sport. No one knows. But no one knew that men's basketball could either, until you start putting money into it."

Back to the start

The men's tournament had existed for 33 years by the time a women's collegiate national tournament began with the AIAW in 1972. When the NCAA took over the women's contest 10 years later, the men's tournament drew a crowd of more than 60,000 at its North Carolina vs. Georgetown final at the Louisiana Superdome and more than 17.5 million TV viewers.

By contrast, the first women's NCAA Final Four drew an average crowd of 7,766 and just under 6 million viewers for the Louisiana Tech vs. Cheyney final at the Norfolk Scope in Virginia.

And that disparity makes sense, as Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen pointed out. The men's game has been around longer and had more time to build a reputation and fan base. By the time the NCAA women's tournament began, Title IX — the law banning sex-based discrimination in education and activities — was only 10 years old and hadn't really shown its full effect on girls' participation in sports.

But it didn't take long for the women's tournament to gain momentum. By 1987, it had drawn its first five-figure crowd average for the Final Four. Since 1992, that weekend has never dipped lower than 10,000 fans, except for the canceled 2020 tournament and 2021's bubble year with limited attendance.

Lynn Holzman, the NCAA vice president for women's basketball, said prior to the pandemic, the previous seven of eight Final Fours had sold out. Beyond that, regular-season games are becoming just as hot a ticket, as Staley said her South Carolina team sells out at least one game a season.

ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo won the NCAA title with UConn in 1995, the year Minneapolis first hosted the Final Four, also at Target Center. She remembered how growing up, pretty much only the national championship game was on TV for the women's tournament. And she recalled how teams played the semifinals and the final on back-to-back days, without a full day of rest like the men have.

One new addition to the Final Four this year in Minneapolis is the addition of a free open practice for both teams on Saturday in between the semis and the final. Fans can attend in person, but ESPN will also have a show live from those sessions as well.

"There's a difference in coverage, huge," Lobo said. "… I don't think there was any pregame show for my Final Four. It was the game. … The media landscape covering women's basketball the whole season, but in particular the Final Four, is completely different now than it was 20 years ago."

ESPN is broadcasting all 67 tournament games this year in full national windows for the second consecutive year with every game from the Elite Eight on shown on the main ESPN channel, per an ESPN spokeswoman. Regular-season viewership averages 185,000 viewers, up 45% year over year, while last year's tournament averaged more than 4 million viewers for the championship, the most since 2014, and more than 2.8 million through the Final Four, the most since 2012.

Changes made

UNLV professor and Title IX expert Nancy Lough said there has been a significant uptick in the past five to six years when it comes to interest in women's sports. But she refers to it as a "tipping point phenomenon." The women's NCAA tournament didn't spontaneously become popular — it had always drawn a passionate fan base. It's just now spilling over into the mainstream.

Social media might have been the biggest catalyst. Lough said only about 4% of sports media coverage is on women's sports. So women's sports in particular has benefited from athletes and fans being able to create their own content through TikTok videos, blogs, and more. She said the success of the U.S. women's soccer team has also brought more awareness to women's sports in general.

And with the NCAA's new name, image, likeness options, players have the opportunity to grow their personal brand. Minnesota native and now UConn star Paige Bueckers is probably the best example of that. Her endorsement deals with companies such as Gatorade and StockX could earn her an estimated $1 million a year.

While there have always been incredible college players — from Nancy Lieberman in the late 1970s to Sheryl Swoopes in the '90s to Diana Taurasi in the 2000s — this generation of players is even more athletic because they have the trickle-down effect of having watched those greats before them and thus start playing and training earlier and harder.

That history has also built storylines that fans can follow throughout the years, like fans who watched Staley play at Virginia and go on to become a national championship-winning coach at South Carolina.

With how far women's college ball has come, that's what made 2021's tournament equity issues — most famously viral social media posts that compared the comprehensive men's weight room in the tournament bubble to the women's couple of yoga mats and one set of free weights — so jarring.

The outrage that sparked led to the Kaplan Report, which led to the NCAA focusing on improving the fan experience, tournament branding and athletes' accommodations for this 2022 Final Four.

But some issues are not so easily fixed, especially the financial one. The Kaplan Report revealed while the NCAA shops the men's tournament to network bidders as its own broadcast package, the women's tournament is lumped in with various other college championships, such as the College World Series.

So while the men's broadcast deal with CBS and Turner is currently worth about $770 million a season — a large part of the tournament's almost billion-dollar revenue each year — the women's true value isn't known because it's packaged with 20 different NCAA championships included in a 14-year, $500 million deal with ESPN.

Lough said that shortsightedness of potentially leaving money on the table is "quite honestly sexist."

"The way they justify it is that the men are revenue-generating and because of that, they need to put all these resources in to enhance their revenue-generating potential," Lough said. "The argument to that is that they've never considered the women's side to have the potential to be revenue-generating,"

But when the players take to the Target Center court in April, they won't be thinking about the inequities. When the fans cheer on from the stands, they won't be lamenting how much more progress the women's game has to make.

They'll feel the same feeling that permeates every women's Final Four, from 1982 up to 2022.

"The experience itself was just thrilling for the participants, the coaches, the fans. It just didn't get the hype. It didn't get the coverage that the men's tournament got," longtime Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "But it did not lessen the experience."

More this week: 2021 revisited

Read our story later this week focusing on the inequities of the 2021 Final Four facilities for the women's and men's championships, and what has been said and done in the past year to try to change that.