Thursday December 7, 2023

ESPN Takes Next Step To Control Women’s College Basketball Rights

  • The NCAA announced that its version of the WNIT — the WBIT — will be broadcast entirely on ESPN.
  • The deal is likely part of ESPN’s play for future rights to the Division I women’s tournament, which is up for grabs in 2025.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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This week, the NCAA announced it struck a deal with ESPN to broadcast the first NCAA-sponsored women’s NIT-style tournament.

The deal is likely part of ESPN’s play for future rights to the Division I women’s tournament, which is up for grabs in 2025. 

The 32-team tournament, called the “Women’s Basketball Invitation Tournament,” will be broadcast mostly on ESPN+. The semifinals will air on ESPNU, with the championship on ESPN2. 

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. But a small investment is significant, given the network is being judicious with spending on even the most top-tier rights like the College Football Playoff. 

“ESPN’s portfolio of women’s basketball events has never been stronger,” Dan Ochs, ESPN director of programming and acquisitions, said in a statement. “Presenting the inaugural WBIT across ESPN platforms further expands ESPN and Disney’s commitment to elevating women’s sports and investing in the growth of women’s basketball at multiple levels.”

ESPN plans to be aggressive with a bid to keep the women’s March Madness, a source previously confirmed to FOS. The WBIT deal will likely only strengthen the relationship between the two parties.

But women’s March Madness could come at a hefty price. 

The current media deal, which bundles women’s March Madness with 28 other NCAA tournaments, costs ESPN an average of only $34 million a year. But one media expert said the tournament alone could be worth $81 million annually. 

Since that prediction, the women’s March Madness ratings have skyrocketed by almost every measure — the women’s championship game, which drew a record 9.9 million viewers, outdrew most bowl games.

The NCAA is interested in separating the women’s tournament out from other sports, a source previously told FOS. Endeavor, which the NCAA has tapped to help with negotiations, has presented at least one proposal, NCAA documents confirmed.

The NCAA has also chosen to host the WBIT semifinals and finals in the same location as the men’s NIT — significant given the NCAA decided not to host men’s and women’s March Madness in the same city despite a strong recommendation from an independent gender equity report.

The NCAA’s choice could be for budgetary reasons, and to give the NIT fans exposure to the women’s tournament. Because ESPN owns the broadcast rights to the men’s NIT, the networks’ resources will already be deployed. (An NCAA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The tournament will be in direct competition with the existing WNIT, a 64-team event run separately from the NCAA by a private company called Triple Crown Sports. The entire tournament takes place on campuses, and is broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

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