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Iowa-LSU Was the Most Watched Women’s Basketball Game in Nearly 30 Years

  • The game’s average audience of 12.3 million trails only the gold medal game at the 1996 Olympics.
  • The Elite Eight game blew away the average of 9.9 million viewers for last year’s championship.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

We already know Caitlin Clark and Iowa’s revenge win over Angel Reese and LSU was the most-watched women’s college basketball game ever. But ESPN’s telecast of Iowa-LSU was also the most-watched women’s basketball game—of any kind, on any level—in nearly 30 years, and appears to be the second-most-watched of all time.

With the Hawkeyes avenging their defeat to the Tigers in last year’s championship game, Monday night’s Elite Eight game averaged a staggering 12.3 million viewers, blowing away the record 9.9 million viewers set by the two teams in last year’s championship game. Contextualizing that, though, turned out to be a bit tricky, because researchers and publicists who would have a dizzying array of statistics at their fingertips when it came to men’s basketball turn out to have somewhat less for the women’s game.

According to my research over the last couple of days, the game did better than all WNBA and women’s college basketball games ever—an even more impressive achievement than it sounds like, given the accelerating collapse in the number of households that even have ESPN. It was, in fact, the biggest audience for any women’s basketball game since 1996. 

According to NBC, only its telecast of Team USA’s gold medal victory over Brazil at the Atlanta Olympics pulled more viewers. On average, 19.5 million viewers watched Team USA take the women’s basketball tournament only days after the deadly pipe bomb attack at Centennial Olympic Park. That 1996 team included American hoops legends such as Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie, and Dawn Staley—now head coach of Final Four contender South Carolina.

Monday night’s TV viewership for Iowa-LSU topped, among others, the women’s gold medal games at the 2016 Rio Olympics and ’20 Tokyo Olympics, according to NBC. 

At a time when women’s basketball is rising in popularity, ESPN’s telecast had it all. You had a dazzling Clark dropping 41 points (including nine three-point bombs), a gutsy Reese coming back from an ankle injury, and controversial LSU coach Kim Mulkey losing her quest for a second straight championship. 

With casual viewers tuning in to catch the Caitlin vs Angel showdown, ESPN’s audience peaked at 16 million viewers. By every metric, that figure was eye-popping. The 12.3 million number topped the 11.86 million average for the mighty NFL’s Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime Video in 2023. It also beat every college football game of the 2023 regular season except Fox’s broadcast of Michigan–Ohio State, which came in at 19.07 million. 

While admittedly it’s an apples-to-oranges situation to compare a single elimination game to a best-of-seven series, ESPN’s cable telecast of Iowa-LSU beat the average viewership for the NBA Finals (11.65 million on ABC), World Series (9.11 million on Fox) and Stanley Cup Final (2.6 million on TNT).

ESPN-ABC holds exclusive rights to the women’s Final Four and national championship. The network is pulling out all the stops to capitalize on Clark Mania. ESPN will MegaCast Friday night’s Final Four coverage of South Carolina–NC State and Iowa-UConn, as well as sister network ABC’s subsequent coverage of the national championship game Sunday. Nearly a dozen ESPN platforms will offer their own angle on the Final Four, including a “Beyond the Rim” presentation on ESPN+, featuring an aerial camera view and an enhanced statistical feed.

For the first time, ESPN2 will cover the two championship contenders’ open practices Saturday. If Iowa and undefeated SC come together for a dream championship matchup Sunday, sports TV ratings expert Douglas Pucci predicts an average viewership of 16 million—possibly beating out the audience for the men’s championship game.

Smylie Kaufman Moving to SportsGrid

Smylie Kaufman earned his first PGA Tour tournament by firing a 61 on the final round of the Shriners Children’s Open in 2015. But a series of injuries, and a case of the yips, led him to pursue a media career outside the ropes. His growing podcast, and impressive TV debut on NBC, has some calling him the next David Feherty. 

Now the golf insider is following the Pat McAfee playbook by signing a long-term agreement to license his weekly Smylie Show podcast to SportsGrid. The beauty of licensing deals is talent like Kaufman and McAfee retain ownership of their shows. They’re more contractors than employees. They make their own rules—like McAfee did when he accused ESPN boss Norby Williamson of “sabotaging” his show with no repercussions, yet, from ESPN management.

The Smylie Show will appear on SportsGrid’s streaming video channel every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, as well as on the SportsGrid Radio Network on Tuesdays and Thursdays. To kick off the deal, Kaufman will go on location in Augusta, Ga., to record celebrity interviews, previous and recaps during Masters week. 

Mike Drops

Overtime boasts more than 40 player-investors from the NFL and NBA. Now it’s expanding its partnership with the NFL. Overtime’s OT7, a 7×7 football league, has signed a deal to have its regular-season games shown across NFL Network for two hours on Saturday and Sundays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET. Outside of those hours, fans can also stream it on YouTube at Overtime SZN. The league’s new regular season kicks off April 6–7 in Dallas. Landing a media-rights partner in the NFL Network, which is distributed in more than 51 million U.S. homes, should bring new viewers to the 7×7 league. … When did “dawgs” become the new hot sports TV superlative? Seems like everybody is describing a top performer as a “dawg” these days on TV. McAfee has been doing it forever on his show—so I’ll give the credit to him. … If you’re in the Philadelphia area Friday, check out the Sports Law Journalism Symposium hosted by Andrew Brandt at Villanova University. I will be speaking about the wholesale changes in sports media production and programming with Betsy Riley of Amazon Prime Video and Kevin Hopkins of Excel Sports Management. … Tell it to Tuned In: Got a question about sports media? Or just want to sound off? Email me at michael@frontofficesports.com for my next mailbag.


Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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