If the NCAA sells Women's Basketball independently...what happens to the other sports?
I asked a few commissioners
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In 2011, the NCAA signed a $500 Million deal with ESPN to broadcast 24 NCAA championship events. This TV package includes the women’s college basketball tournament, along with everything from FCS football to college soccer to swimming. The contract is scheduled to expire after the 2023-2024 athletic season.
Not every one of those championship events generates much of an audience, but several of them do. For example, The FCS championship game has comfortably drawn over a million viewers over the last several seasons, with late-round playoff games typically clearing 500K viewers. That’s a far cry from TV numbers for elite FBS postseason competition, but a million viewers is still a lot of television eyeballs.
Other NCAA championship events have also attracted substantial TV audiences. Last year, the Women’s College World Series actually did better ratings than the Men’s event, with a peak audience of over 2.1 million. Over the last two years, both softball and baseball championship events have drawn over a million viewers.
According to ESPN PR, the men’s hockey championship final between Minnesota and Quinnipiac averaged over 800,000 viewers, and other hockey championship games regularly clear 400,000. Women’s volleyball championships have also regularly drawn more than half a million viewers, and wrestling, lacrosse, gymnastics, and others also have loyal audiences.
But the crown jewel of the package is unquestionably the women’s basketball tournament. You’ve probably heard about how this year’s Final Four absolutely demolished previous records for viewership. ESPN said the two semifinal games averaged over four million viewers, and the championship game averaged a staggering 9.9 million viewers, a number well above typical NBA and NHL postseason contests.
Even if 9.9 million represents a high mark, thanks to star power on and off the court, rather than an average…that’s still a big TV audience. And a big TV audience typically means a bigger TV contract. Via the New York Times:
ESPN has shown most of the women’s tournament since 1996 when it took over the rights from CBS. Before Friday night’s games, viewership was already up 42 percent compared with last year’s tournament. But the rights to show the tournament, and 28 other N.C.A.A. title events, are up for a new deal next year.
Leaders in women’s basketball have long fought for maximizing the tournament’s TV rights as a way to help a steep imbalance with the men's game. The N.C.A.A. estimates that the women’s tournament could be worth at least $85 million in 2025, compared with just $6 million in ESPN’s current agreement
One expert believes that number could be even higher. The NCAA’s “Kaplan Report”, published in 2021, reads:
As part of this review, and with the full support of the NCAA, Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP (“KHF”) engaged an independent media expert, Ed Desser, to assess the true value of women’s Division I basketball. Desser and his team estimate that the annual broadcast rights for women’s basketball will be worth between $81 and $112 million in 2025—a figure multiples higher than what ESPN currently pays for an entire annual broadcast package that includes Division I women’s basketball as well as 28 other NCAA championships. Even if the NCAA were able to realize only a portion of that estimate as the result of future negotiations, those funds would make a significant difference in the money available to support NCAA championships and the NCAA membership.
So should the NCAA spin the women’s tournament off when they sell their next media package? Well…the answer may be more complicated.
Back in late March, Emily Caron of Sportico caught up with a few sports media rights consultants, all of whom cautioned that completely breaking the WBB tournament out of the NCAA package could dramatically undercut the value of the rest of the package. For example,
“If you take that jewel out of the crown, does anybody still want the crown?” William Mao, SVP of media rights consulting at Octagon, said. “That’s the risk because there are so many other championships that are tied together here. … There clearly is more value that could be had for the women’s championship on its own, but the broader consideration here from a strategic perspective is what does that do to the potential value of everything else?”
The NCAA isn’t just trying to maximize financial gain alone with this next deal. They’ll also need to balance concerns about stability (is it safer to sign a longer-term deal as the broadcast industry becomes even more turbulent?), exposure for multiple sports, and equity.
Just about everybody agrees that the women’s basketball tournament is an undervalued asset. But what do the leagues think that are heavily tied to sports other than football and basketball?
I asked a few.
Dan Butterly is the commissioner of the Big West Conference. There are good college basketball teams in the Big West, but historically, the league is probably better known for excellence in sports like baseball, softball, and volleyball (where the league is a powerhouse that routinely wins national titles). The Big West does not sponsor college football.
Robin Harris is the commissioner of the Ivy League, whose membership institutions often sponsor more sports than big-budget P5 programs. The Ivy obviously cares about basketball (both of Princeton’s basketball teams won NCAA Tournament games this season), but Ivy teams and athletes also compete for titles in lacrosse, swimming, wrestling, and plenty of others.
Both commissioners agreed that women’s basketball is an undervalued asset, and not just because the media rights fee doesn’t match up with viewership.
Women’s basketball, just like every other sport outside of men’s basketball, doesn’t generate ‘unit payouts.’
Conferences earn a ‘unit’ for every game their teams play in the Men’s basketball tournament, typically close to $300K a year per team per game. That means a deep run by a team like FAU or San Diego State could generate millions of new revenue for a league over a multiyear period.
“Both the Princeton men and women won NCAA Tournament games,” Harris told me. “I was equally excited for them, but only one of their postseason achievements is financially rewarded.”
Harris told me that NCAA unit awards are “a nice to have” for the Ivy League, but not mission-critical funding. Still, she believes that only distributing the unit awards for men’s basketball “sends a message to schools about what sports are worth investing resources in.”
Butterly agreed, telling me that he would support examining distributing “unit” awards to multiple sports, not just men’s and women’s basketball. The idea was also endorsed by the Kaplan report, and I’ve heard other conference commissioners express support for the concept as well.
But inertia is a powerful force in college athletics administration, even if an idea is relatively popular. Harris told me that she didn’t think the unit model would change “until there is new money to distribute”, perhaps after the future of the NCAA championship deal is secured.
And what happens to the championships deal without women’s basketball?
Right now, both Butterly and Harris agreed, there is still a significant difference in the audience if an event airs on even a smaller linear ESPN network (like ESPNU) instead of on ESPN+ or other streaming platforms. I’ve heard this exact thing from television consultants as well…discoverability and access across even niche linear networks are substantially better than what streaming is offering…right now.
But as more consumers look to cut their cable cords…will that still be true at the end of the next contract? Will the exposure difference on ESPNU or ESPNNews be so large in 2032 that moving some events to a streaming platform would be intolerable for the NCAA? Butterly told me he wasn’t sure.
He also told me thought the timing might not be ideal for the NCAA, pointing to the Pac-12’s public challenges in securing their own media rights deal. “If ESPN is potentially going to lay workers off, RSNs are going bankrupt, and other firms are tightening their belts, is this exactly when you want to take smaller properties to market?”
Harris told me that she didn’t have a strong opinion about whether women’s basketball should be sold in a different package, but did say that she felt it would be important for the NCAA to “take a holistic approach” and consider the exposure and financial needs of all sports alongside their need to maximize revenue.
Figuring out how to balance the need to maximize women’s basketball revenue, how to maximize revenue potential for FCS football, softball, and other sports, and the need to make all championship broadcast experiences accessible and high-quality is a complicated balancing act. It may depend on if the NCAA is willing to take on some production costs for smaller championship events, if new linear partners enter the marketplace, and how much risk the individual conferences are comfortable with.
The NCAA is working with Endeavor to come up with recommendations for their media rights strategy, and Harris told me she doesn’t expect a firm recommendation “for several months.”
Which is probably for the best. It’s not an easy question. It’s safe to assume that in a year or two, somebody is going to pay a lot more money for the privilege of broadcasting the women’s college basketball tournament. But whether they’ll also be buying the rights for hockey and softball, or if the package is broken up across multiple partners… remains to be seen.
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