Women’s college basketball believes it has the makings for a hit reality TV show with star power driving a marketable product that has a growing audience.
So they're taking the ensemble on the road for the Sweet 16.
The NCAA changed the format of the tournament this year, featuring two regional sites instead of the traditional four. The games in Greenville, South Carolina, and Seattle are the latest step to grow the sport and show the ladies can stand on their own.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley believes the question of whether women’s hoops merits its own March Madness TV contract has already been answered, even though the women's tournament loses money under the current deal.
“Somebody’s watching women’s basketball," Staley said. "Somebody feels like we’re in high demand, and obviously the decision-makers that put us on now realize that they've got to keep putting us on.”
The women's title game will be broadcast on ABC — the first appearance on network television since 1995. Women's basketball is part of a current contract that bundles all NCAA championships under one deal except for men’s basketball and football.
The NCAA is expected to decide by the fall if the women’s tournament will become a separate entity after hiring Endeavor, a consulting firm, to determine how to take championships to market.
“It's an exciting time. Year over year, we continue to demonstrate the value that women's basketball brings to that space," said Lynn Holzman, the NCAA vice president of women’s basketball. "It'll be exciting to see what the results are of this for the sport itself, but also for the NCAA more broadly in our championships.”
TV ratings have been trending up over the last two years. This year's regular season was the most viewed on ESPN networks in eight years and was up 11% from last season. That came on the heels of last season's title game between South Carolina and UConn that averaged 4.85 million viewers — the most for a women's championship game since 2004. The first round had a 27% ratings increase from last year.
“People enjoy watching close games. They like the fact that there’s some semblance of uncertainty of who’s going to win," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “There’s been so many changes in the top 10 all year long. ... Teams are in, they start out at the top they go out they come back in. I think all that creates a level of excitement.”
People aren't just tuning in during March Madness, they have also been showing up.
Attendance at the NCAA Tournament has continued to rise the past five seasons, growing by 60% in the first two rounds from an average of 4,464 in 2016 to 7,240 this year. This season had the highest attendance ever for the first two rounds.
“It makes us very bullish on women's basketball,” Holzman said. “It is demonstrative of the growth we've been seeing in the sport.”
Now the NCAA hopes that growth is reflected in increased television revenue.
ESPN pays $34 million per year for the championships package, which it agreed to in 2011, including women's basketball. But the law firm the NCAA hired to investigate equity issues in 2021 said in its report that estimated women’s basketball annual broadcast rights would be worth $81 million to $112 million.
The NCAA said the 2019 women’s tournament lost $2.8 million and those losses have multiplied the last two years since the the sports governing body increased spending after disparities between the men's and women's tourneys were pointed out.
If the NCAA can get close to the numbers projected in the 2021 report, it might be able to offer revenue shares — known as financial units — to women's teams in the tournament in a structure similar to what the men receive from their March Madness tournament.
Men's teams earn a slice of the money pie for their conference for every game they play excluding the championship. Each unit is paid by the NCAA over a six-year cycle. This year the NCAA will dole out $170 million to conferences from the men's tournament.
It's fair to say the women have a lot riding on this weekend at the two regional sites.
The NCAA is hoping the success of the Final Four — which sells out every year — translates to its new “mini Final Fours.”
Holzman believes the new format gave fans a better chance to know where their teams would be headed. The NCAA vice president of women’s basketball also anticipated greater economic impact on host cities would lead to more bids to host in the future.
But for some coaches, it's all about location.
The regional sites the next two years will again be held in cities on opposite coasts. The closest team playing in Seattle this year is Colorado, located 1,300 miles away.
Texas coach Vic Schaefer is “a little concerned” about the distance some teams will have to travel, but eager to see how the tournament unfolds.
“The powers that be believe it’s going to be great, and I’m hopeful that it will be,” Schaefer said. "Those are two opposite ends of the spectrums, west and east, three time zones between both of them. And there’s just nothing in the Midwest. And we have a lot of teams in the Midwest. We’ll see.”
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli, Pat Eaton-Robb and Jim Vertuno contributed to this report.
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