The NCAA and ESPN have announced a groundbreaking eight-year agreement worth $115 million annually to televise 40 college sports championships each year, including the highly popular Division I women’s basketball tournament. This historic $920 million deal has ended years of speculation and debate about how to capitalize on the growing popularity of women’s sports, particularly basketball, and represents a significant milestone for women’s college sports.
The previous contract between the NCAA and ESPN, which ran through the end of the current season, brought in $34 million per year for 29 championships. However, recent developments in women’s sports, with teams like South Carolina and UConn and star players like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, and Sabrina Ionescu, have raised expectations for the sport’s financial success. The 2021 NCAA women’s basketball title game, won by LSU under coach Kim Mulkey, broke viewership records, drawing 9.9 million viewers and highlighting the sport’s growing appeal.
To Spin or not to Spin
While there were calls to spin off the women’s basketball championship into a standalone media deal, similar to the men’s tournament, NCAA President Charlie Baker acknowledged that selling it on its own wasn’t viable in the current market. The NCAA’s goal was to secure the best deal for all of its championships, and ESPN demonstrated enthusiasm and commitment throughout the negotiations, making them the ideal partner.
The new contract, set to begin on September 1, guarantees that the national championship games in women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, and women’s gymnastics will be broadcast on ABC each year. While the deal does not include the Division I men’s basketball tournament, it positions the NCAA for more flexibility in future media rights negotiations when the contract expires in 2032.
Prominent women’s basketball coaches like Dawn Staley advocated for a standalone media deal for the women’s tournament. Last season’s success on ABC, with a 55 percent viewership growth, demonstrated the sport’s potential as a revenue-producing powerhouse. The new $65 million valuation for the women’s basketball tournament reflects its recent growth, setting the stage for further development.
The NCAA plans to explore revenue distribution units for women’s basketball teams based on tournament success, a system already in place for men’s teams. Currently, only men’s NCAA Tournament teams earn units, but discussions within the Division I board of directors finance committee suggest changes could be on the horizon.
The 2021 NCAA Tournament marked a turning point for women’s college basketball when public outrage erupted over inequities between the men’s and women’s tournaments, highlighted by a viral TikTok post from then-Oregon center Sedona Prince. An independent equity review conducted by Kaplan, Hecker & Fink LLP recommended spinning off the women’s basketball tournament separately, suggesting a higher valuation.
While there were considerations to sell the women’s basketball tournament as a standalone package, the NCAA ultimately chose to stick with ESPN, a partner deeply invested in the sport’s regular season and incentivized to cover the lead-up to the marquee postseason event. ESPN’s commitment includes increasing production, marketing, storytelling, and broadcasting more games on ABC.