NCAA signs lucrative championship TV deal, but keeps women’s basketball in the package

The NCAA said Thursday that it had reached an eight-year deal with ESPN worth $115 million annually to televise 40 college sports championships each year, including the Division I women’s basketball tournament that many people within the college sports expected it to be even bigger. returns given a wave of recent popularity.

The $920 million deal ended several years of speculation and debate over how the NCAA could capitalize on the influx of fans into women’s sports, including basketball. Powerful equipment like South Carolina and University of Connecticut and star players like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Sabrina Ionescu have created higher expectations for a sport that has generated much less money than men’s college basketball and soccer, counterparts that have received much larger investments from universities and media companies for almost a century.

The NCAA’s current contract with ESPN, which was extended in 2011 and runs through the end of this season, generates $34 million per year and includes 29 championships. A 2021 report, commissioned due to complaints about glaring differences between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, suggested that the women’s tournament could earn at least $81 million in the first year of a new deal, if sold on its own and not as part of a package, although industry experts received some skepticism about its ambitions.

In the end, the NCAA and ESPN agreed to keep the package and valued the women’s basketball tournament at approximately $65 million per year based on their side of the agreement.

NCAA President Charlie Baker admitted in an interview that selling women’s basketball alone was not viable given market realities.

“We said from the beginning that we wanted the best deal we could get for all of our championships,” Baker said. The Athletic. “There were many informal conversations that took place with many other potential participants in this negotiation, but the one that was consistently involved and the one that I would say was the most enthusiastic significantly throughout the course of this was ESPN.

“The way they handled the negotiations showed that this was really important to them, that it was still part of their portfolio. I think they will be a fantastic partner in the future.”


Last year’s NCAA women’s basketball title game, won by LSU and coach Kim Mulkey, broke viewership records. (Kirby Lee/USA Today)

The new contract does not include the highly 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 NCAA more flexibility in its upcoming negotiations over media rights, 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 Sept. 1 and includes guarantees that national championship games in women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and women’s gymnastics will be broadcast on ABC each year.

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What does the NCAA’s new media rights deal mean for women’s college basketball?

Several prominent women’s basketball coaches, including South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, had advocated for the NCAA to spin off the championship into a separate media deal, like the deal used for the men’s basketball tournament.

Last season, the women’s title game aired for the first time on ABC and attracted 9.9 million viewers – and featured the most people to ever watch a men’s or women’s college event on ESPN+. Overall viewership growth increased by 55 percent and sports stars (players and coaches) became household names. Many in and around women’s basketball hoped that this agreement reflect the recent significant growth in the sport by taking it out of a package that it shares with dozens of other sports.

“It should happen,” Staley said in March. “We are in that place where we have a great demand. I think women’s basketball can stand on its own and be a huge revenue-generating 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.

“Little by little we are getting there because there is proof in the numbers.”

NCAA media advisers at Endeavor’s WME and IMG Sports said their financial model valued the women’s basketball tournament at $65 million annually, representing more than half the value of the new $115 million contract. Hillary Mandel, executive vice president and head of Americas media at IMG, and Karen Brodkin, executive vice president and co-head of WME Sports, said they began the process of preparing for the NCAA negotiations by evaluating opportunities in the market for both individual sports and for the 40 sports pack.

“In the end, you have to find the agreement that matches your goals and objectives and not break up because everyone tells you: ‘Separate! Ungroup! ‘Hey, that’s the best thing you can do!’” Mandel said. “Let’s just not get lost in the sauce 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 the open market for a potential bidding war. . He said ESPN’s financial investment, its existing infrastructure and the “overwhelming amount of production” the network has committed to on both linear and streaming platforms made it the best opportunity for the NCAA. More than 2,300 hours of championships will air annually on ESPN’s linear and digital platforms as part of the deal, and will air its 10-sport selection shows.

“Maintaining exclusivity was very important to us in a world of fragmentation,” said ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro.

Thursday’s news serves as another turning point for women’s college basketball, although reactions are expected to be mixed. The tournament itself is valued at more than 10 times its previous valuation of between $6 million and $7 million annually under the current contract, but its unique value was not fully proven. Still, rising revenue and the new $65 million valuation for the women’s basketball tournament lay the groundwork for future changes in the sport.

The NCAA will explore the idea of ​​rewarding women’s basketball teams’ NCAA Tournament success with revenue sharing units, Baker said, a system used on the men’s side of the sport to reward conferences and universities for their performance in the tournament. The Division I board’s finance committee began discussions on that front in 2023 and will talk more with its member universities this year, the NCAA said.

“The tournament has grown dramatically thanks to the hard work of so many student-athletes, coaches, schools and people from the NCAA and ESPN,” Baker said. “Hopefully, we can find a way to make it happen.”

Currently, only men’s NCAA Tournament teams earn units by advancing through the bracket. Each team that earns a bid to the tournament earns one unit for its conference, with more units up for grabs based on tournament wins. The total revenue earned from tournament units goes to the conference of the team that won them and is distributed to the universities over a six-year period, and comes from a portion of the revenue that the tournament itself generates annually. In the past, the women’s tournament has not generated enough revenue to justify allocating money for a unit system.

Women’s college basketball hit a high point during the 2021 NCAA Tournament when inequalities in treatment between men and women became apparent to the public. Although those inside the game had known for years that the NCAA had favored men’s basketball over other sports, a TikTok post by then-Oregon center Sedona Prince sparked much more widespread outrage and a push for change.

@sedonerrr

It’s 2021 and we’re still fighting for bits of equality. #ncaa #inequality #fightforchange

♬ original sound – Prince of Sedona

Prince’s tweet racked up 12.3 million views as the college star pointed out basic inequalities, highlighting key differences between the women’s and men’s tournament in terms of food provided to teams, access to weight rooms and even bags of gifts. Players and coaches also talked about other areas that showed how athletes were treated differently, such as having 68 teams in the men’s draw versus 64 in the women’s and the use of the “March Madness” branding only for the men’s tournament.

A week after Prince’s tweet, the NCAA had hired law firm Kaplan, Hecker & Fink LLP to conduct an independent capital review of the NCAA. In August 2021, the company published its 117-page review, known colloquially as the “Kaplan Report” – of NCAA gender equity within basketball championships. The Kaplan report recommended that the NCAA separate the women’s basketball tournament from other sports, suggesting a higher valuation, and said the NCAA had created differences in the tournaments by having different people work to organize them without properly consulting whether they were comparable. .

Baker and the NCAA’s media rights advisers said they evaluated all possible options, including going to the open market and trying to sell a stand-alone women’s basketball tournament package, but opted against it.

“If the market had shown us and Endeavor that it would be worth doing, we would have gone that route,” Baker said.

Several industry experts said The Athletic over the past year that it would make more sense for the NCAA to keep the women’s tournament with ESPN, a partner that broadcasts much of the sport’s regular season that would be incentivized to cover the sport in the lead-up to the main postseason. event. Brodkin said there would be no better option than to offer to triple their current deal in addition to increasing investment in production, marketing and storytelling while putting more games on ABC.

“Disaggregate for the sake of disaggregation: we would have to go through the exercise of who and how someone is going to do more than that.” 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, although not in prime time. There could be more women’s sporting events on ABC or in better windows in the future, as both parties have agreed to meet periodically to consider changes to maximize visibility of events that require it.

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(Top photo: C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)