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The Future of Women’s March Madness Media Rights Is Bright

  • The NCAA will conduct a market analysis of the women’s tournament media value ahead of upcoming negotiations.
  • The biggest question is whether the NCAA should sell the product on its own.
Apr 2, 2023; Dallas, TX, USA; LSU Lady Tigers head coach Kim Mulkey celebrates with the tournament trophy after defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes during the final round of the Women's Final Four NCAA tournament at the American Airlines Center.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The most successful women’s Final Four couldn’t have come at a better time, as the NCAA is gearing up to negotiate a new media rights contract that could garner hundreds of millions a year.

The championship game drew an average of 9.9 million viewers on ABC — a women’s basketball record and just a few million shy of the men’s championship game. 

But it wasn’t just the final. The semifinals, which averaged 4.5 million viewers, also set a record — and every round of the women’s tournament saw double-digit increases. The tournament saw a 55% average increase from last year.

The staggering viewership “elevated this event into the upper echelon of broadcast television sports — above any MLS game, two of the six New Year six bowls, and any Stanley Cup game over the past 50 years,” Collegiate Sports Management Group COO Ray Katz, an expert in media rights, told Front Office Sports. 

But the NCAA’s current media contract with ESPN, which runs until 2024, certainly doesn’t pay like an upper-echelon product: The contract, which bundles the women’s tournament with 28 other championships, pays out $34 million a year when an outside consulting firm found the women’s tournament alone could be worth between $81-$112 million.  By comparison, the men’s tournament owned by CBS/Warner Bros. Discovery pays out more than $870 million annually.

In the offseason, the NCAA — led by new president Charlie Baker — will be tasked with negotiating a new media deal that reflects the value of the now monstrous women’s tournament. 

On championship Sunday, Baker told reporters he’s doing a “business review of everything.”

  • The governing body had retained Endeavor to determine the value of the women’s tournament before Baker arrived.
  • He said the plan is to “test the market” for the women’s tournament media rights. “You say to all the various players on the media side, and you say, how much you want to pay for this?”
  • He did say, however, that NCAA officials will do the negotiating — the main role of the consulting firm is to determine potential prices for the product.
  • Then, once a deal is on the table, approval will go through at least two NCAA committees.

The biggest question for maximizing rights is whether the NCAA should spin the women’s tournament off the other championships and sell it as its own property. 

There are pros and cons: the women’s tournament could stand on its own, but other sports may need it as part of their package to add value to their products. 

The NCAA gender equity review, which included the media rights estimates, favored selling the women’s tournament as its own product. But “one media consultant’s opinion is not validation,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told FOS after the championship. “I think what happened this weekend is actually validation.”

Sankey believes the NCAA should thoroughly review the women’s championship value on its own. “It’s clearly the time to do it, and we need to do it really well,” he said. (Sankey, however, isn’t directly involved unless the NCAA asks for his help.)

Coaches like UCLA’s Cori Close and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley have also voiced support for a separate women’s basketball media package.

But the tournament’s projected value and its packaging are only a few factors. “The resulting rights fee will be more reliant on the presence of a second and/or third bidder than the elevated stature of this superb property,” Katz said.

Usually, there’s an exclusive negotiating window with the current rights holder — in this case, ESPN. The network is interested in renewing the property, a source previously told FOS. ESPN has invested heavily in expanding coverage, from a mega cast to more pre- and post-game content — and VP of Production Patricia Lowry told FOS she has a wishlist for even more coverage in the future.

But as Staley said on the title game postgame last year, “you need some competition, some network competition. That’s what drives the money up.”

Over the weekend, Iowa’s Monika Czinano told reporters: “It’s about time women’s basketball gets this kind of viewership.” It’s about time the NCAA sold the tournament for its true value, too.

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