The NCAA said Thursday that it has reached an eight-year deal with ESPN worth $115 million a year to televise 40 college sports championships each year, including the Division I women’s basketball tournament that many people watch College sports internals hoped it would be ready to be even bigger. returns given a surge of recent popularity.
The $920 million deal ended several years of speculation and debate about how the NCAA might benefit from the influx of fans in women’s sports, including basketball. Powerful teams like them South Carolina AND UConn and star players like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Sabrina Ionescu have created greater expectations for a sport that has earned far less money than men’s college basketball and football, counterparts that have received much higher investments from universities and media companies for nearly a century .
The NCAA’s current contract with ESPN, which was extended in 2011 and runs through the end of this season, brings in $34 million a year and includes 29 championships. A 2021 report, commissioned amid complaints about glaring differences between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, suggested the women’s tournament could earn at least $81 million in the first year of a new deal if it were sold alone and not as such. part of a package deal, although that estimate was met with some skepticism by industry experts due to its ambitions.
Ultimately, the NCAA and ESPN agreed to keep the package and value the women’s basketball tournament at about $65 million annually under their end of the deal.
NCAA President Charlie Baker acknowledged in an interview that selling women’s basketball alone was not feasible given the realities of the market.
“We said from the beginning that we wanted the best deal we could get for all of our leagues,” Baker said Atletico. “There have been many informal conversations with many other potential participants in this negotiation, but the one who has been consistently engaged and the one who I would say has been the most excited significantly throughout the course of this negotiation has been ESPN.
“The way they handled the negotiations showed that this was really important to them, that it continued to be part of their portfolio. They’ll be a terrific partner, I think, moving forward here.
The new contract does not include the lucrative Division I men’s basketball tournament; Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery pay nearly $900 million a year to broadcast that event on CBS and the Turner cable networks in a long-term deal that runs through 2032. The new NCAA-ESPN contract also expires in 2032, which will give the The NCAA will have more flexibility in upcoming media rights negotiations, Baker said. (The NCAA does not control the rights to Football Bowl Subdivision postseason games, and the College Football Playoff handles its own negotiations and controls its own revenue.)
The new contract will begin in September. 1 and ensures that national championship games in women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and women’s gymnastics are broadcast annually on ABC.
What does the NCAA’s new media rights deal mean for women’s college basketball?
A number of prominent women’s basketball coaches, including South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, had advocated for the NCAA to turn the championship into a stand-alone media deal, like the deal used for the men’s basketball tournament.
Last season, the women’s title match aired for the first time on ABC and it attracted 9.9 million viewers — and featured the most people to ever watch a men’s or women’s college event on ESPN+. Overall audience growth increased by 55% and sports stars, players and coaches, became household names. Many in and around women’s basketball expected this deal reflect recent significant growth in sports by pulling it from a package that it shares with dozens of other sports.
“It should happen,” Staley said in March. “We’re in that place where we’re in high demand. I believe that women’s basketball can stand on its own and be a huge revenue-producing sport that could do, to some extent, what men’s basketball has done for all the other sports, all the other Olympic sports and women’s basketball.
“We are slowly getting closer to that because there is evidence in the numbers.”
NCAA media consultants Endeavor WME and IMG Sports said their financial model valued the women’s basketball tournament at $65 million a year, which makes up more than half the value of the new $115 contract. Millions of dollars. Hillary Mandel, EVP and head of Americas media at IMG, and Karen Brodkin, EVP and co-head of WME Sports, said they have begun the process of preparing for the NCAA negotiations by evaluating opportunities in the market for both sports individuals as well as those for the media. the 40 sports pack.
“Ultimately, you have to find the arrangement that matches your goals and objectives and not unbundle it because everyone tells you, ‘Unbundle! Unbundle! Hey, that’s a cool thing to do!’” Mandel said. “Let’s not get lost in the meat of that conversation.”
The two sides began engaging in serious negotiations in late October, Brodkin said, and completed the deal during ESPN’s exclusive negotiating window, meaning the NCAA did not take its championship package to market open for a potential bidding war. He said ESPN’s financial investment, its existing infrastructure and the “tremendous amount of production” the network has committed to across both linear and streaming platforms made it the best opportunity for the NCAA. More than 2,300 hours of championships will air annually across ESPN’s linear and digital platforms as part of the deal, and 10 sports will broadcast their marquee programs.
“Maintaining exclusivity was very important to us in a world of fragmentation,” said ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro.
Thursday’s news represents yet another turning point for women’s college basketball, although mixed reactions are expected. The tournament itself is valued at more than 10 times its previous valuation of $6-7 million per year under the current contract, but its singular value has not been fully tested. However, increased revenue and a new $65 million valuation for the women’s basketball tournament have set the stage for the sport’s future change.
The NCAA will explore the idea of rewarding the NCAA Tournament success of women’s basketball teams with revenue distribution units, Baker said, a system used by the men’s side of the sport to reward conferences and universities for performances in the tournament. The Division I Board of Governors’ Finance Committee began discussions on this front in 2023 and will talk more with member universities this year, the NCAA said.
“The tournament has grown significantly thanks to the hard work of so many student-athletes, coaches, schools and people at the NCAA and ESPN,” Baker said. “Hopefully, we will be able to find a way to make it happen.”
Currently, only men’s teams in the NCAA Tournament earn units by advancing through the bracket. Each team that earns a bid to the tournament earns a unit for its conference, with more units up for grabs based on tournament wins. The total revenue earned by tournament units goes to the conference of the team that earned them and is distributed to universities over a six-year period, and comes from a portion of the revenue the tournament itself brings in each year. The women’s tournament has not brought in enough revenue in the past to justify allocating money for a unitary system.
Women’s college basketball reached a big moment during the 2021 NCAA Tournament, when inequalities in treatment between men and women became apparent to the public. While those inside the game have known for years that the NCAA had favored men’s basketball at the expense of other sports, a TikTok post by then-Oregon center Sedona Prince sparked much more widespread outrage and momentum for change.
Prince’s tweet garnered 12.3 million views as the college star highlighted basic inequities, highlighting key differences between the women’s and men’s tournaments in food provided to teams, access to weight rooms and even bags of gadgets. Players and coaches also spoke out about other aspects that showed how athletes were treated differently, such as having 68 teams in the men’s bracket versus 64 in the women’s bracket and the use of “March Madness” branding only for the men’s tournament.
Within a week of Prince’s tweet, the NCAA had hired the law firm Kaplan, Hecker & Fink LLP to conduct an independent review of the NCAA’s net worth. In August 2021, the company published its 117-page review, known colloquially as “Kaplan Report” – of the NCAA’s gender equality in basketball championships. The Kaplan report recommended that the NCAA separate the women’s basketball tournament from other sports, suggesting a higher rating, and stated that the NCAA had created differences in the tournaments by having different people work to organize them without adequately discussing whether they were comparable. .
Baker and the NCAA’s media rights consultants said they looked at all possible options, including going to the open market and trying to sell a stand-alone package for the women’s basketball tournament, but opted against it.
“If the market had proven to us and Endeavor that it was worth doing, we absolutely would have gone in that direction,” Baker said.
Several industry experts have said so Atletico in the final year that it would have been more logical for the NCAA to keep the women’s tournament with ESPN, a partner that broadcasts so much of the sport’s regular season that it would be incentivized to cover the sport in the run-up to the postseason event. Brodkin said there would be no better option than to triple their current deal as well as increase investment in production, marketing and storytelling, while putting more games on ABC.
“Unbundling for its own sake: you should ask yourself who and how will anyone do more?” Brodkin said.
Last season, the women’s title game aired on ABC for the first time, and ESPN announced in October that it would air on ABC again this season, though not in prime time. There may be more women’s sporting events put on ABC or in better windows moving forward as both sides have agreed to meet regularly to consider changes to maximize visibility for events that require it.
The NCAA has secured a media rights deal for women’s college basketball … but now the real work begins
(Top photo: C. Morgan Engel / NCAA Photo via Getty Images)