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- Five thoughts and unanswered questions about the NCAA's new TV contact
Five thoughts and unanswered questions about the NCAA's new TV contact
How much of a win for women's basketball is this REALLY? And what does it say about future deals?
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I am pleased to announce that I’m back from Holiday Break and am ready to continue publishing Extra Points on our regular schedule. I’ll share some housekeeping-type stuff at the end of the newsletter.
But for now, I want to talk about the NCAA’s huge new championship television contract that was announced late last week. The NCAA announced a new, eight-year broadcast agreement with ESPN for the domestic broadcast rights to 40 NCAA championships, including the women’s basketball tournament, as well as international rights for those 40 and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
This agreement is reportedly worth $115 annually, a substantial increase from the $34 million ESPN currently pays to broadcast 29 championship events.
After thinking about this for a few days and texting a few TV people and administrators, here are a few of my biggest takeaways, and additional questions.
Why did the NCAA bundle the women’s basketball tournament with everything else? Didn’t that leave money on the table?
Everybody who knows even a little bit about the business of college athletics would agree that the women’s basketball tournament was a substantially undervalued broadcast asset. In the NCAA’s Gender Equity Report, published in 2021, Ed Desser of DMI Media projected that the tournament would be worth “between $81 and $112 million annually beginning in 2025.” The idea that the NCAA would carve out the women’s tournament from the championship package to sell independently became something of conventional wisdom among reporters and fans.
Now, the women’s tournament is included in the NCAA package, and the entire thing, which includes the FCS football playoffs, women’s volleyball tournament, and college world series, is selling for substantially less than Desser’s projections.
So what happened?
For one, it’s worth pointing out that Desser’s analysis in the Kaplan report was not universally accepted as gospel in the television business. I recall one story, from late March, where multiple professional analysts suggested to Sportico that moving WBB out of the package would substantially undermine the value, and exposure, of the rest of the NCAA package. I had heard other analysts, and even a few conference commissioners, suggest to me over the last year that $100 million-ish was probably too high of a number, given who was likely to bid on the event.
Late in the Fall, I began to hear more industry gossip that the NCAA was likely to keep WBB in the tournament package for exactly that reason. It wasn’t directly sourced enough for me to feel like I could publish that, but there was enough out there for me to not be caught off guard by the press release.
I talked to a few conference commissioners on the record back in April, who all stressed the importance for the NCAA to take a “holistic” approach to championship television broadcasts, meaning they wanted to make sure that all events had access to linear broadcast opportunities. While this might not be the case in a few years, those leaders believed there is still a significant difference in audience access between ESPNU and a streaming-only platform.
I’m going to try and get more folks on the record here, but based on what I heard in October, what I believe happened is that the NCAA and their media consultants realized that the WBB tournament was going to be substantially more valuable to ESPN, an entity that already has a relationship with the WNBA and a multiplatform commitment to support women’s basketball, than it would be to other broadcast partners.
While it may be possible that the NCAA could have squeezed more than $65 million from ESPN for the women’s tournament, doing so would have taken away money and broadcast opportunities from the rest of the package.
In a world where ESPN and FOX are trying to save money for the CFP, other networks are saving up for NBA rights, and where major streaming companies have demonstrated their college sports interest is more bark than bite, this may very well have been the best possible deal on the table. This isn’t exactly the best time to be going to market as a college rights entity. Just ask the Pac-2.
My read here is that while it’s great that WBB will make substantially more revenue than it did before, ESPN still probably picked up the rights at a big-time discount.
So when are we actually getting WBB Unit Payouts?
As of right now, the only postseason event that distributes financial rewards based on performance is the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Conferences are given “unit” payouts depending on team success, payouts that can shape realignment decisions and change budget trajectories at the low and mid-major levels.
In the NCAA press release, it says “With the significant increase in value of the new agreement, NCAA members will explore revenue distribution units for the women's basketball tournament.” All three commissioners I spoke to in April also endorsed the idea.
I’m glad the NCAA has been discussing this in their various committees, and I’m glad they will continue to do so at the Convention and beyond. But this is a good idea that shouldn’t die in subcommittee hell. It’s an idea that has been championed already by several coaches, athletic directors, and conference commissioners, and it should be implemented as soon as possible.
Former ASUN commissioner Ted Gumbart banged the drum for WBB Tournament Units for almost as long as I’ve been writing Extra Points, and I know that many other male college leaders have expressed support for the change. But I hope that moving forward, public pressure to more equitably share postseason revenue should not just be the job of high-profile women’s basketball coaches, or women conference commissioners. It would be nice to see more dudes in positions of power get in front of microphones and say, “Hey, Robin Harris and Jen Heppel are right. Let’s get this done.”
How significant are international broadcast rights?
This has been on my to-do list for months and I haven’t figured out the best way to report it out.
The seed was first planted in my head back in 2022, when the Big Ten announced an agreement to broadcast over 70 volleyball matches globally on Volleyball World TV, an agreement that was extended in 2023. I couldn’t get straight answers about what that meant from a financial perspective, but Big Ten coaches and administrators were adamant that in volleyball, this was a big deal. So many parents of international athletes couldn’t easily watch games on Fox or BTN from Spain or Germany, and casual fans in those countries would be interested in watching high-level competition.
In March, I ended up taking a little time off to go back to Brazil and hang out with some extended family. I tried to legally watch some of the NCAA Tournament, but the games weren’t broadcast on Brazil’s ESPN2, ESPN3, or ESPN4, and my Portuguese wasn’t good enough to explain to a bewildered barkeep what Purdue Basketball was. Vamos assistir ao jogo de basquete com…uh…uh…os homens altos do milho?
I know ESPN has plenty of international broadcast channels. Their PR team let me know there’s an ESPN Netherlands, ESPN Africa, ESPN Israel, and others, and the network syndicates programming to non-ESPN branded channels in other countries.
What I don’t know is how accessible that programming is in other countries, especially places where maybe broadband internet or linear cable isn’t as common as it is here. Did ESPN buy low on a potentially significant asset? Does the NCAA have plans to help promote championship programming beyond the United States?
Plenty of college sports, from basketball to volleyball, baseball to swimming, field hockey to gymnastics, heavily recruit all over the world. Some conferences, like the Big 12, are even trying to specifically grow their brand awareness out of the country. I’d love to know more about what kind of market exists for this type of programming, and how everybody plans to serve and develop it.
So uh, what happens if the NCAA falls apart before the end of the deal?
Right now, all NCAA Division 1 members compete for the same championships and in the same tournaments. Part of what gives the MBB tournament so much casual appeal is that a school like Fairleigh Dickinson or Saint Peter’s could knock off a massive heavyweight. It’s like the American version of the FA Cup.
There is no guarantee that continues forever. NCAA membership will consider new proposals that will allow the most resourced programs to spend more on scholarships, coaches, and direct payment to athletes, a step that many in college sports believe is a nod towards some sort of eventual breakaway of major programs. The NCAA-owned NIT has gotten rid of automatic championship access for regular-season conference champions, in a move to placate broadcast partners hoping to carve away major brands for new tournaments.
Plus, there’s the whole existential threat of lawsuits (Johnson, House, the NLRB, and others) wiping the modern NCAA out. The idea that this exact governance structure, this exact postseason structure, and this exact definition of amateurism exist throughout this new eight-year TV contract feels…uh…optimistic.
Does this deal become null and void if 80 major brands leave the NCAA to create their own thing? Does it change if the NCAA makes major championship access reforms? Did the NCAA push for a longer-term contract as a potential hedge against future membership instability?
It’s hard to say without seeing the exact language in the deal (which we’re not gonna get), but it shouldn’t be ignored. To me, this entire deal feels a little bit like building a beautiful house right in coastal Louisiana. It looks great. But lemme see that hurricane insurance policy before I decide to come visit in 2026, you know?
How would this all look differently in an explicitly professionalized model?
This is just a thought experiment but stick with me here.
NCAA membership wants to maximize the financial value of their broadcast deals, of course. But that isn’t their only priority. Membership also wants to maximize broadcast access and exposure, not just for a few premier sports, but for the entire athletics portfolio.
Because of the academic calendar, they’re somewhat limited to when certain championships can be held, or what sort of travel they can swing. Some of the championship events they are obligated to produce not only attract limited audiences but are particularly difficult and expensive to produce.
Trying to balance all of those constituent needs is how you end up with a topline number that looks smaller than what many academics, coaches, and activists expected.
But what would these deals look like if you could afford to toss out virtually every other obligation? How many NCAA events would be on television at all? When would they be played? Who would broadcast them? How would the brackets look?
I’m not advocating for the NCAA to abandon attempts at gender equity or promoting Olympic sports excellence. I don’t want to insinuate that approaching this negotiation like the NFL would produce a better outcome. But I do think it’s worth pondering what sort of changes that would bring, especially if you are somebody who is not satisfied with these broadcast terms.
As the NCAA invariably moves towards a more professionalized system, it’s worth considering…what sort of championship reforms are worth considering, and where should the new line in the sand be drawn?
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