Last Updated on January 4, 2024
ESPN is expanding its portfolio of college broadcasts to 40 NCAA championships (21 women’s events and 19 men’s events) in a landmark 8-year deal totaling $115 million annually. The agreement begins on September 1, 2024, and will include international rights to the Division I men’s basketball tournament, expanded coverage of DII and DIII championships and full rights for the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) and Women’s Basketball Invitational Tournament (WBIT).
The network also guarantees the DI women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and women’s gymnastics championships will air on ABC, with more exposure granted to both softball and baseball championships as well. Ten selection shows will also be distributed on ESPN networks. With 11 more championships in this package than the last one, all NCAA sports, especially women’s, will receive more exposure than before.
“The ESPN networks and platforms will exclusively present a record number of championships, including all rounds of several marquee events that, together with the NCAA, we have grown over time,” ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro said in a release. “This unprecedented deal also further strengthens The Walt Disney Company’s industry-leading commitment to women’s sports and will help fuel our continued growth, including in the critical streaming space.”
The Value of Women’s Basketball in the TV Deal
There has been considerable growth in viewership for several women’s sports in recent years. Last season’s women’s basketball title game on ABC marked 9.9 million viewers, the 2023 women’s gymnastics championship on ABC was the most watched live women’s gymnastics telecast ever on ESPN platforms and the 2023 NCAA women’s volleyball championship set records, too.
ESPN and the NCAA’s conclusion was to bundle these sports together rather than package them separately, which, especially for women’s basketball, has raised some controversy.
NCAA President Charlie Baker told Sports Business Journal the women’s basketball tournament is currently valued at around $65 million, which is 56% of the media rights portion of the deal. However, this falls significantly short of the $81-112 million per year media expert Ed Desser estimated in 2021.
The men’s tournament, which is packaged separately, is valued at over $900 million on its own. There are fears that keeping the women’s tournament within the ESPN deal until 2032 could hinder its potential profitability as an independent entity.
New in this TV Deal
Nonetheless, the commitment to air the most popular championships on ABC did not exist in the previous agreement. ESPN tripled the current rights fee and already has experience broadcasting and promoting women’s collegiate sports live and on streaming, which it is committing to continue and expand.
“Concurrent with the terms of the new media rights, several enhancements to student-athlete benefits across all three NCAA divisions will take effect, and this deal will help fund those important programs,” said Linda Livingstone, chair of the NCAA Board of Governors and Baylor University president. “And the national, integrated platform the family of ESPN networks provides will help grow the visibility of many NCAA sports, particularly for our women student-athletes.”