November 6, 2023
The world of women’s college basketball had a transformative moment last spring, marked by soaring viewership numbers and a surge in popularity. Now, as the new season tips off, the sport is eager to build on that momentum and continue to capture the attention of fans across the country.
The spring of 2023 was an unforgettable period for women’s college basketball. It culminated with a national championship game that captivated millions of viewers. ESPN reported record-breaking viewership for the Final Four, Elite Eight, and Sweet 16, with an impressive 9.9 million people tuning in to watch the championship match. To put this into perspective, the recently concluded World Series had an average of 9.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. It was a moment where the women’s game took center stage, overshadowing the men’s event.
As the new season unfolds, women’s teams are capitalizing on this unprecedented interest. The University of Iowa and Louisiana State University (LSU) have already sold out their season tickets. South Carolina and Notre Dame will kick off the season in Paris, marking the first NCAA basketball game played there, whether for men or women. The goal is clear: to sustain the momentum and enthusiasm generated during the previous season.
Debbie Antonelli, a Hall of Famer and analyst, emphasizes that high-quality product is the key to maintaining this momentum. “The product is the narrative. It continues to deliver at a high level,” she says. The sport has produced household names that have helped elevate the game’s popularity, and the focus is on building on that foundation.
Furthermore, the recent implementation of college athletics’ name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules has opened up new opportunities for women’s basketball players. They are among those best positioned to take advantage of these financial opportunities. These rules have ushered in a new era where athletes can capitalize on their social media following and personal brands.
For instance, Angel Reese, an LSU forward with 5.2 million social media followers, is valued at $1.7 million, making her more valuable in this aspect than Heisman Trophy candidate quarterbacks such as J.J. McCarthy of Michigan, Bo Nix of Oregon, and Michael Penix Jr. of Washington. The women in the sport are also making appearances in advertising campaigns nationwide, expanding their reach and influence.
Lee McGinnis, a marketing professor, explains this phenomenon as the “halo effect.” Just as Michael Jordan’s popularity transcended sports in the 1990s, elevating the Chicago Bulls and the NBA, the success of certain women’s basketball players can have a similar positive impact on the entire sport. Their popularity on social media and in advertising campaigns contributes to the overall growth of the game.
In terms of television rights, the current deal with ESPN for all Division I NCAA championships, excluding the men’s basketball tournament, will expire in August 2024. The NCAA anticipates that the annual value of the Division I women’s basketball tournament will range from $81 million to $112 million, starting in 2025. This prediction was made before the sport’s recent surge in popularity, and it’s expected that the value will only increase.
Despite the progress, there are still challenges to overcome. Inequities in treatment and resources between the women’s and men’s basketball tournaments have been exposed in recent years, and there is still work to be done to ensure equality. Conferences do not currently receive payouts from women’s teams advancing in the tournament, unlike men’s teams.
In addition, improving nonconference schedules and creating more intriguing matchups earlier in the season can help engage fans from the beginning. There are also discussions about the potential for a single-site tournament, providing a centralized destination for fans and teams alike.
Beth Goetz, Iowa’s interim athletic director, emphasizes that everyone involved in the sport has a shared responsibility to prioritize and nurture the moment. “It takes all of us to recognize that this moment exists and that we can lean into it and continue to make sure it thrives,” Goetz says.
The women’s college basketball world is ready for an encore, and it appears that with the right strategy and collective effort, it can continue to grow and thrive in the spotlight.