AP Sports

Women’s March Madness finds foothold on national TV

With hopes of a separate television contract in upcoming negotiations, the women’s NCAA Tournament keeps gaining momentum.

The national title game returns to network television for the first time since 1995, with an ABC broadcast on April 2 from Dallas and a one-hour pregame show.

ABC will feature at least six games from the women’s tournament, including two first-round games Saturday and a pair of second-round contests Sunday.

“Putting it on ABC, we’re giving it the best opportunity for success,” said Dan Ochs, who handles women’s basketball programming for ESPN. “This tournament continues to grow and deliver for us.”

South Carolina’s 64-49 victory over Connecticut in last year’s title game averaged 4.85 million viewers on ESPN — the most-watched women’s championship game since 2004. It was also the fourth-largest audience for the title game since the network began airing the entire tournament in 1996.

The 2022 women’s tournament overall averaged 634,000 viewers per game, a 16% increase over 2021, with many of the rounds seeing their highest averages in more than 10 years.

ESPN has every reason to believe those numbers can increase: Regular-season games on the network averaged over 190,000 viewers, making it the most-viewed regular season since 2015. And a matchup of two undefeated teams on Feb. 12, in which South Carolina topped LSU, was the most-watched regular-season women’s game since 2010 with an average of 1.47 million viewers.

Advertising for the tournament has sold out for the second straight year, ESPN said, with 15 broadcast sponsors and nearly 100 advertisers.

It’s the third year that all of the women’s NCAA Tournament games will have national air time between ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPNews. The staggered start times and multiple channels brings it in line with the men’s tournament in terms of access.

Up until 2019, ESPN used regional windows during the first two rounds, with the games mostly on ESPN or ESPN2.

ESPN’s current contract to broadcast the women’s tournament expires next year. Right now, the women’s tournament is part of a package with 28 other title events and does not include the men’s tournament. ESPN pays $34 million per year for the championships package, which it agreed to in 2011.

The NCAA is expected to decide by the fall if the women’s tournament will become a separate entity, along with how the other championships may be divided.

“I mean, all of the things and the investments that have been made from the NCAA over the last few years are really important, and greatly recognized and appreciated,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “That being said, I’m also really excited for a few that still need to be attacked. And I think that, really being able to separate and go to market as the new ESPN contract comes up to bid, I think that’s an important next step as well as meaningful unit distribution as associated with the women’s tournament.”

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AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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