Another March Madness is in the books. As in previous years, the college basketball tournaments were filled with last second game winning shots and upsets. Also, as in previous years, millions of viewers filled out their brackets and watched the games. This year’s March Madness had one other upset, the blockbuster ratings for Women’s March Madness and sharp viewing declines for the Men’s tournament, despite a number of seismic upsets.
Women’s March Madness
The women’s finale aired live on ABC, ESPN and streamed. It marked the first time the championship game was televised on a broadcast network since 1995 (on CBS), an indication of the growing popularity of the sport. According to ESPN, the game averaged 9.92 million viewers (peaking at 12.6 million), the most watched women’s college basketball game to date. The game was also the most streamed sporting event (women’s or men’s) to date, on ESPN+.
A reason for the popularity included an exciting high-scoring game fueled by star players on both sides. In the game Louisiana State defeated Iowa 102-85, to win their first title, it was also the highest scoring championship game to date. LSU was led by Angel Reese, who recorded her record 34th double-double of the season with 15 points and ten rebounds.
Despite foul trouble, Iowa’s sharpshooter Caitlin Clark managed 30 points with eight assists. Previously, Clark became the first player (female or male) to score 40 points with a triple-double in a tournament game. The Associated Press recently named Clark Player of the Year and she was named Naismith Player of the Year.
The audience delivery of this year’s championship game more than doubled last year’s contest between South Carolina and UConn. That game averaged 4.85 million viewers on ESPN/ESPN2. Sports Media Watch reports the previous viewing record of any tournament game was a 1992 Virginia-Stanford Final Four game on CBS averaging 8.1 million viewers. The 1995 championship game, the last to air on CBS, had averaged 7.4 million viewers with UConn defeating Tennessee.
Since ESPN started televising the championship game in 1996, the record high average audience had been in 2002 with 5.7 million viewers. That year UConn led by the legendary trio of Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Diana Taurasi had defeated Oklahoma. (Since 2021 Nielsen has included out-of-home viewing.)
Throughout this year’s Women’s March Madness, ESPN set viewing records. For example, the two Final Four contests averaged 4.5 million viewers, a 65% increase from last year. The highlight was Iowa beating previously undefeated, pre-tournament favorite and defending champion South Carolina. That game averaged 5.5 million viewers.
Furthermore, a regional final between Iowa and Louisville averaged 2.5 million viewers on ESPN, becoming the cable network’s most watched women’s non-Final Four game. The previous record was set the day before when Ohio State upset UConn. The game had aired on ABC and averaged 2.41 million viewers. Prior to this year the record non-Final Four audience on ESPN had been set in 1999.
In addition, the four “Elite Eight” contests on ESPN produced a record average audience of 2.2 million viewers, a year-over-year increase of 43%. By comparison, the most watched NBA regular season game on ESPN this year averaged 2.15 million viewers (Knicks-Celtics). Also, the only men’s college basketball games on ESPN to average a higher audience than the women’s “Elite Eight” games were two Duke-North Carolina matchups which averaged 2.86 million and 2.63 million. Overall, the Sweet Sixteen games this season also set an ESPN audience record averaging 1.2 million viewers.
This year’s women’s tournament also set an attendance record of 357,542.
Men’s March Madness
Conversely, the men’s championship game (UConn over San Diego State) on CBS averaged a record low 14.69 million viewers. For UConn it was their fifth national title since 1999.The audience delivery was a 15% drop-off from last season’s (Kansas and North Carolina) game which averaged 17.05 million across TBS, TNT and TruTV. This year’s audience delivery follows a trend, four of the least watched men’s basketball championship games whether on Turner Sports or CBS have been played since 2018.
Nonetheless, the audience for this year’s championship contest was higher than any of the six 2022 NBA Finals games. (The most watched championship game was in 1979 when Magic
Overall, the audience delivery for this year’s men’s tournament was lower than last year. The four Elite Eight games averaged 8.68 million viewers, down 14% from 2022. The two Final Four games delivered an average audience of 12.34 million viewers on CBS, a fall-off of 17% from last year’s semifinal games on Turner Sports.
The growing popularity of women’s college basketball comes at a time when their media rights contract is up for renewal. Axios reports that presently, ESPN pays a reported $34 million for the rights to women’s basketball along with 20+ other women’s college sports. (College basketball package is valued at $6 million.) The deal expires after the 2023-24 season.
The NCAA projects the current women’s tournament alone could be valued at $85 million or more by 2025. Charlie Baker, the NCAA’s new president (and former Massachusetts governor), has noted with the popularity of the women’s tournament they may negotiate a separate media rights deal. By comparison, CBS and Turner pay the NCAA $770 million each year for the men’s tournament, increasing to $1.1 billion per annum in 2025. That deal expires in 2032.
Besides the current popularity of live sports, there are other reasons to expect the rights fees of women’s basketball to increase substantially in the next round of negotiations. Most importantly is the number of accomplished women basketball stars today. Besides Caitlan Clark and Angel Reese, there is South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston who was named Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and widely expected to be the top draft pick of the WNBA later this month.
Also, UConn’s Paige Bueckers who sat out the 2022-23 season with a torn ACL will be returning next season. Bueckers became the freshman to win the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year and USBWA Player of the Year. There are a number of other stars that has helped to make women’s college basketball more popular. Besides the NCAA, the biggest beneficiary of these players will be the WNBA.