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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

South Carolina’s Title Win Smashes Ratings Records in Caitlin Clark’s Finale

  • She is having a Tiger Woods–like effect on women’s basketball.
  • The women will likely outdraw Monday night’s men’s final.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

As the final seconds ticked off in South Carolina’s victory over Iowa, ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco exclaimed, “Perfection with a touch of sweet redemption.”

The line was a chef’s kiss in several ways. Ruocco was celebrating South Carolina exacting revenge for its Final Four loss to Caitlin Clark and Iowa last year, as well as the team’s perfect, undefeated season. But the play-by-play announcer was also saluting the sweet redemption of women’s college basketball finally reaching, and likely surpassing, men’s college hoops.  

ABC/ESPN’s telecast of South Carolina’s thrilling 87–75 win over Iowa averaged 18.7 million viewers, ESPN said on Monday. The network said it was the most watched basketball game since 2019, beating the ratings for every sporting event outside of football and the Olympics in that period. It came up just short of the the 19.5 million who watched NBC’s broadcast of the U.S. vs. Brazil gold medal game at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Current South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley was part of that gold-medal-winning American squad.

Viewership peaked at 24 million viewers, the network said. It smashed the previous women’s college basketball record, set just Friday night, and nearly doubled last year’s Iowa-LSU title game.

That figure for Iowa–South Carolina may outdraw viewership for Monday night’s men’s final between UConn vs. Purdue tonight on TBS/TNT/truTV, said sports ratings expert Doug Pucci. He forecasts 17 million to 18 million viewers for the matchup between the two men’s college hoops powerhouses. Last year, viewership for UConn–San Diego State fell to 14.69 million viewers on CBS, making it the least-watched men’s NCAA final on record. “Connecticut–Purdue will do good for TBS, TNT, and truTV, but it won’t top [Iowa–South Carolina],” Pucci tells Front Office Sports.

The saying in golf is Tiger Woods doesn’t move the TV needle; he is the needle. And so is Clark. The so-called “Caitlin Clark effect” got bigger every game, breaking one TV record after another. In 2023, Clark and Iowa’s championship loss to Angel Reese and LSU drew a then record 9.9 million viewers. The wave crested during ESPN’s exclusive coverage of this year’s March Madness. Along the way, women’s college hoops got its due:

  • During a Sweet 16 matchup against Colorado, Clark and Iowa drew an impressive 6.9 million viewers. That set the table for three straight record-breaking TV performances.
  • Clark and Iowa’s revenge win over Reese and LSU in the Elite Eight last Monday set a new all-time high for women’s college basketball viewership, with 12.3 million viewers.
  • That record was smashed only four days later as Clark and Iowa’s Final Four win over Paige Bueckers and UConn pulled 14.2 million viewers.
  • Despite an early 3 p.m. ET tip time on ABC, Sunday’s Iowa–South Carolina grudge match lived up to its billing. With Clark scoring 18 points in the first quarter, Iowa raced out to an early lead. But South Carolina’s defense and rebounding wore Iowa down, producing Staley’s third title in the last eight years.

There have been other sports stars who drove TV ratings before fading quickly, like Deion Sanders and Colorado last fall or Jeremy Lin’s “Linsanity” with the New York Knicks in 2012. But Clark looks like a keeper. Look for her to supercharge the WNBA’s viewership after becoming the certain No. 1 pick at the league’s draft April 15. The WNBA averaged 505,000 viewers across ABC, CBS, ESPN, and ESPN2 during the ’23 season, up 21% from the year before. With Clark dropping three-point bombs for the Indiana Fever, that number will almost certainly jump up.

The NFL dominates TV viewership in this country, setting a new record for any U.S. broadcast with its latest Super Bowl bringing in an average of 123.4 million viewers in February. But outside of the NFL, Sunday’s title game outperformed nearly all major sports telecasts from 2023.

Among the tentpole events in 2023 that Iowa-USC outdrew, listed by average audience according to Sports Media Watch:

  • Alabama-Georgia (SEC title game), CBS, Dec. 2: 17.52 million
  • Georgia-TCU (CFB nat’l championship), ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU, Jan. 8: 17.22 million
  • UConn–San Diego State (MBB nat’l championship), CBS, April 3: 14.69 million 
  • Kentucky Derby, NBC, May 7: 14.44 million 
  • Nuggets-Heat (NBA Finals, Game 5), ABC/ESPN2, June 12: 13.08 million 
  • The Masters (final round), CBS, April 9: 12.06 million
  • Rangers-Diamondbacks (World Series, Game 5), Fox, Nov. 1: 11.48 million
  • LSU-Iowa (WBB nat’l championship), ABC/ESPN2, April 2: 9.92 million
  • Daytona 500, Fox, Feb. 19: 8.17 million
  • U.S.-Netherlands (Women’s World Cup), Fox/Telemundo, July 26: 7.59 million
  • Coco Gauff–Aryna Sabalenka (US Open final), ESPN, Sept. 9: 3.42 million
  • Panthers-Bruins (Stanley Cup playoffs, Round 1, Game 7), TNT, April 30: 3.10 million

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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