In the weeks leading up to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, the big focus was on improving the player experience, including expanding the “March Madness” brand to the event for the first time.
Broadcast rights and the millions of dollars associated with them will soon become a priority.
The NCAA championship package, which includes the women’s tournament and 28 other title events, though not the men’s, is due in August 2024. That means the bidding process for whatever package the NCAA decides to market will likely start next year. fall.
ESPN currently pays $34 million per year for that 29-event package, which it agreed to in 2011. The Kaplan Report, which was commissioned by the NCAA after glaring inequalities between the 2021 men’s and women’s tournaments came to light, estimated The women’s tournament could have a market value of $96 million to $101 million per year as a separate package.
Will the NCAA try to sell the event as its own product? It’s a question on the minds of many in the women’s game, including South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who wants to see tournament teams make money just like the men.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said last week before the Final Four that all options are on the table.
“We’re heading into just the right period to analyze and determine the best approach for a new contract,” he said. “Whether it’s about breaking up the sports, whether it’s staying together, we’re going to have to determine that, and we’re going to have to work with outside experts, as we always do, to provide the necessary data and expertise on all of that. .”
South Carolina’s 64-49 victory over Connecticut on Sunday night averaged 4.85 million viewers on ESPN, making it the most-watched women’s championship game since 2004. It was also the fourth-largest audience for the title game since the network began broadcasting the entire tournament. in 1996.
The tournament overall averaged 634,000 viewers per game, a 16% increase from last year, with many of the rounds seeing their highest averages in over 10 years. This was the second year that every game was broadcast on at least one channel nationally instead of targeting regional audiences.
It was also the second year that ABC had broadcast four games the first weekend of the tournament, while ESPN hosted an alternate telecast for Final Four weekend on ESPN2 with Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi providing commentary. The championship game aired at 8 pm ET; in previous years, kickoff was at 6 pm, so the game would precede “Sunday Night Baseball.” That was not the case this year after the baseball season was delayed due to the lockout.
The next step could be for the main game to air on ABC, which, like ESPN, is owned by Disney. Rebecca Lobo, a former UConn star and longtime ESPN analyst, said it’s more a question of when than if.
“It is moving in the right direction. As a fan of women’s basketball, that’s my hope, because I know it rates higher, it draws a bigger audience and it’s a bigger platform,” she said. “Ideally, for me, that’s where our biggest game would be.”
Advertising inventory sold out a month before the tournament began and included 14 sponsors and 22 advertisers. Disney Advertising’s Deidra Maddock, vice president of sports brand solutions, also noted that nearly two million brackets were completed on the ESPN Women’s Tournament Challenge page.
Having the first two weekends run from Friday to Monday, instead of Saturday to Tuesday as had been the case in previous years, also helped with higher attendance and grades. While Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma wasn’t happy about playing a regional final on a Monday before playing in the Final Four four nights later, it might have been worse if the last two regional finals were on a Tuesday.
UCLA coach and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association president Cori Close said one possibility would be to have the first two weekends run from Thursday to Sunday, just like the men’s tournament. While the Kaplan Report suggested playing on days when the men’s tournament is free, a Sunday-Wednesday model would be detrimental to players as well as attendance and ratings.
Another idea from the report that isn’t getting much attention is having one or two networks with men’s and women’s tournaments. The CBS/Turner deal with the men’s tournament will run through 2036 and the idea that two networks would have to schedule possibly 32 games in one day, 16 for men and women in the first round, would not make it feasible.
CBS and Turner’s original contract with the NCAA was for 14 years at $10.8 billion (average of $770 million per year). They signed an extension in 2016 and the annual average will increase to $1.1 billion from 2025.
Tag Garson, Wasserman’s senior vice president of properties, said the biggest key to any upcoming rights deal is making sure there is flexibility to adapt to a changing media landscape.
“A few years ago, there was no Paramount Plus, Disney Plus or Peacock. There’s something to be said for having stability, at a time in collegiate or intercollegiate athletics where there hasn’t been as much stability recently,” Garson said. “But at the same time, if anyone can tell you where the media is going in the next decade, I have a bridge to sell you.”
That uncertainty is certainly a factor for the NCAA, which is under scrutiny when it comes to improving gender equity even as it reviews its own approach to governing more than 1,200 member schools with nearly 500,000 athletes.
“That is our great quest. How do we find the best intersection between attendance, TV ratings, corporate sponsorship, student-athlete wellness, and competitive fairness, and where do all those circles of priorities converge? Close asked. “There are times when things must be exactly the same. But there are other times when we just want the opportunity to be successful in our own landscape.”
More AP Women’s College Basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
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