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So what now?

That’s the big, media-centric question for women’s college basketball. Where does the sport go after the head-spinning viewership figures for the national championship game? South Carolina’s 87-75 win over Iowa on April 7 averaged 18.9 million viewers, the most-viewed women’s college basketball game ever and the most-viewed college basketball game (men’s or women’s) on record for an ESPN platform. The audience was up 90 percent over the 2023 national championship (9.9 million for LSU’s win over Iowa) and 289 percent from 2022 (4.9 million viewers for South Carolina’s win over UConn). The game peaked at 24 million viewers on ABC and ESPN during the final 15 minutes.

The 2024 NCAA Women’s Final Four was the most-viewed on record, averaging 13.8 million viewers. Those numbers included 14.4 million viewers for Iowa-UConn (the second-most-watched women’s college game on record) and 7.2 million viewers for N.C. State and South Carolina. The tournament overall (57 games) across ESPN platforms averaged 2.2 million viewers, up 121 percent from 2023. It’s the most-watched women’s NCAA Tournament since ESPN acquired exclusive rights in 1996.

To put the South Carolina-Iowa viewership in perspective, the game topped:

• Every World Series game since Game 7 in 2019;

• Every NBA Finals game since Game 5 in 2017;

• Every Daytona 500 since 2006;

• Every Masters final round since 2001;

• All but four college football games in 2023;

• All but one non-Olympic women’s sporting event on U.S. television — the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final between the U.S. and Japan.

So that’s the momentum the sport has heading forward. Iowa star Caitlin Clark now moves to the WNBA, and her exit will unquestionably depress next year’s NCAA Tournament viewership numbers. It’s wish-casting to think next year’s title game can draw 18 million or more, but the opportunity to grow women’s college basketball is massive.

The first step, from this perspective, is to increase the visibility of the regular-season schedule.

“What I am focused on with my team is over the next couple of years, can we get it to a better place where we have more consistency in our offering of regular-season women’s college basketball on premier platforms throughout the season,” said Nick Dawson, ESPN senior vice president of programming and acquisitions. “We’ve made small strides there over the past four or five years, but it’s still a little bit spotty throughout the regular season in terms of when the opportunity exists. How do we build a better momentum-building and recurring and consistent platform for the sport, especially through the months of January, February, early March as it leads into the tournament?”

Dawson is correct that the media rights-holders who own significant national women’s college basketball broadcast rights — ESPN, Fox Sports (especially via Big Ten Network) and Peacock — have an opportunity to showcase a sport with momentum. Getting the sport on linear windows is important. Take Fox Sports, for instance, which put 14 regular-season women’s college basketball games on Big Fox this season, including airing Tennessee-Indiana immediately after an NFL game on Thanksgiving. (That game drew 1.12 million viewers.)

That increase of linear television inventory needs to continue, especially on ABC from the Disney side. If Fox is serious about women’s basketball — and it should be if it wants to bring new eyeballs to its product — here’s hoping it adds full-time national women’s basketball writers for its website. The same for NBC Sports. (The lack of full-time women’s basketball writers from legacy print-digital outlets across the country remains jarring.)

Caitlin Clark

Caitlin Clark helped drive record ratings for women’s college basketball. With her off to the WNBA, ESPN will look to keep up the TV momentum. (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

For the NCAA Tournament, Dawson said ESPN will continue to build on its national-windows plan and tweak the schedule to take advantage of opportunities from a distribution perspective. The company’s recent eight-year agreement with the NCAA (featuring a cost of $115 million annually) to televise 40 college sports championships each year, including the women’s basketball tournament, already looks like a sweetheart deal given this year’s viewership numbers. (The women’s basketball tournament is guaranteed to air on ABC, per the new contract.)

Worth noting on the school side, per this Nicole Auerbach piece, is the NCAA says it is working toward correcting one of the most obscene disparities in college basketball. As Auerbach wrote, “Each men’s team that participates in March Madness earns a sliver of NCAA Tournament revenue called a ‘unit’ for making the field and then one unit for each subsequent win … Each NCAA Tournament unit is worth just over $2 million and is paid out over the course of six years. Women’s teams receive nothing for making or advancing in their NCAA Tournament.”

One of the auxiliary benefits of this year’s tournament will be the ad dollars coming in for the sport. Sportico’s Anthony Crupi reported on March 21 that ad buyers surveyed said “they wouldn’t be surprised if Disney generated more than $25 million in ad sales revenue” for this year’s tournament. The selling for next year’s tournament off this year’s numbers means that ad sales number is going up.

“I’m not naive to the fact that the explosion in consumption of the tournament isn’t only due to our commitment to the sport,” Dawson said. “It’s largely the players on the court, the star power of the Caitlin Clarks of the world. They have transformed outside what you might consider the core basketball audience to capture the imagination of the casual fan. How do we sustain that? How do we sustain the storytelling? How do we sustain the ability to create stars? To have a deeper bench of schools and teams that a larger percentage of casual sports fans might care about. We talked a lot with the NCAA during negotiations about collaborating as best we can to try to do more of that.”

An obvious showcase would be to move the national semifinals to a network. Could the entire Women’s Final Four move to ABC in the future?

“It’s a fair question,” Dawson said. “The conversations have happened with regard to the time slot of the championship game as well as network considerations for the national semifinals. It’s an eight-year deal, so where we start may not be where we finish.

“As of right now, our intention is to continue with what we did — the championship game on ABC in that kind of late afternoon Sunday slot, which from a potential viewership perspective our research team has proven to us that there’s not much difference in terms of potential upside between that window and in a prime-time window. The semifinals are on a Friday night, and that is a particularly interesting discussion because it is roughly five-plus hours when you combine the doubleheader, the pregame show and everything else. … Nothing is off the table long-term. We’ll continue to have those conversations year after year to assess how the distribution world is changing.”

ESPN executives are already thinking of opportunities to expand content surrounding the sport. For instance, they will expand their women’s “College GameDay” franchise next year. You will see more shows from campus sites. They will focus on building up stars, so look for more storytelling on players such as USC’s JuJu Watkins, Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo and others who didn’t get as much focus this year as Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese.

One thing that seems like an obvious addition for ESPN would be to dedicate a linear show to women’s basketball year-round. Look at all the praise ESPN’s women’s basketball studio analysts received during the tournament. If you want to own the crown as the media center of the sport, which ESPN does, these are the kinds of steps to take.

Dave Roberts, ESPN’s head of event & studio production at ESPN and the point person for its NBA and WNBA production, said the company is willing to consider anything.

“We merge from women’s college basketball to the WNBA, and we could not be in a better position to continue the momentum that was exemplified throughout this tournament,” said Roberts. “While we can’t make any announcements at this point, we will look out for every possible opportunity to showcase this sport, and you’ll see that on April 15 with the WNBA Draft. … We will be aggressive, opportunistic and committed to innovative and aggressive programming around women’s basketball.”



Caitlin Clark’s new reality is coming. What will her WNBA transition look like?



Is Caitlin Clark’s star power strong enough to spike WNBA fandom?

(Photo of Raven Johnson and Holly Rowe: Ben Solomon / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)


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