The casual viewer might not notice, but there’s something different about this year’s NCAA women’s tournament telecasts.
The women’s bracket features March Madness branding for the first time. The NCAA made the change after a series of incidents last year that came to light when Oregon’s Sedona Prince showed glaring disparities between the investment in the men’s and women’s events. Subsequent reporting highlighted that the women’s tourney wasn’t even allowed use of the iconic March Madness brand.
“It’s equality,” Carol Stiff, former ESPN executive and Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer, said of the branding. “It just looks prestigious and larger.”
The highly valued moniker, which can be seen both digitally and in-arena, is synonymous with this time of year and associated with the product of college basketball. Even non-sports fans know it.
“Anything that you can use to put your product on a higher plane is a good thing,” said Ed Desser, a longtime sports media consultant who contributed to the external reviews that led to NCAA changes. “It has a nice alliteration and is already well established in the minds of fans at these tournaments.”
While inserting the moniker likely creates more value for the women’s tournament, it’s merely one of the recommendations sent to the NCAA that has come to fruition. That list includes expanding the tournament from 64 to 68 teams, which happened this year for the first time.
But some of the more consequential ones, which carry wider financial implications, remain on the table. The most important of them might be the request to have the NCAA sell the tournament distribution rights as a separate property, as it does the men’s tournament, instead of including it in a package with 28 other men’s and women’s championships.
The NCAA is seriously considering it, according to a source, and for good reason. Some argue the extension agreement between the NCAA and ESPN signed in 2011—a re-up from the original deal in 2001 that includes championships for seven additional sports—is outdated in today’s distribution landscape.
ESPN announced earlier this week that viewership in the second round of the women’s tournament is up 25% (474,000 on average) this year from last year. In fact, UConn’s 52-47 nail-bitter win over Central Florida last Monday averaged 1.1 million viewers, the most-viewed early round game since 2009. Based on engagement data, Desser believes there would be a substantial number of bidders if the NCAA took the rights to market when the current deal with ESPN expires in 2024.
“It makes more sense if you’re the NCAA and you’re trying to get maximum exposure and revenue to sell these parts separately and monetize it accordingly,” said Desser, who believes the property could be worth more than $100 million annually.
That’s quite the increase from the $34 million ESPN is paying on average each year for the total package.
Advocates of the women’s game have also championed the idea as another opportunity to level the playing field with the men’s tournament. But selling the property as a standalone may not be the best avenue for the NCAA to reach more fans and increase revenue from corporate sponsors.
It's unclear how much ESPN makes from the tournament, but media experts believe the network has done a strong job utilizing its ample shelf space, or available programming, to get in front of an audience. With the TV value and popularity of softball and gymnastics also increasing as more women tune into sports regularly, keeping the women’s tournament inside a bundle, attached to a full reach platform like ESPN or FOX, on a shorter-term deal could be more beneficial in the long run. After all, the nonprofit NCAA has a unique obligation to build the game and provide opportunities for men and women college athletes to participate. A large part of that is reinvesting revenues back into member conferences and schools.
“This really isn’t about men vs. women and (comparing) the value,” said former Fox Sports senior executive Patrick Crakes, who now runs his own consultancy company. “This is about who can air this and monetize it. Are there two or three companies that can see value and need it? Or is it still just one?”
WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports will reportedly pay roughly $25 million annually for English-language rights for U.S. Soccer men’s and women’s matches starting next year. Could the women’s basketball tournament command similar numbers on the open market? Or would the NCAA go nontraditional and sign with a streaming service—which could be a more lucrative deal but may limit reach because the games would live behind a paywall.
NFL’s Thursday Night Football previously saw strong numbers on Fox and NFL Network, finishing with 18 million viewers on average in its final iteration (across all platforms), but those high ratings are expected to take a noticeable dip with Amazon Prime Video taking over this season.
NCAA senior president of basketball Dan Gavitt admits the now 68-team women’s tournament is likely undervalued and says the association has spent “millions” to close the gap and bring the event up to par. But how the NCAA handles upcoming media rights negotiations for the growing women’s tournament will be telling about the overall value of the property.
Sportico will be publishing short business highlights throughout the three-week NCAA tournament.
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March 19: Money Talks in the Women's Tournament
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