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Topic: Advocacy - March 31 2024
Have We Fully Tapped Into The Market Power Of Women’s Basketball?

As March Madness heats up, the excitement surrounding women’s college basketball continues to grow. Between a new broadcasting deal and a renewed interest in the game, college basketball as we know it is starting to change. We spoke with Carly Wetzel, Advocacy and Program Manager at the VOICEINSPORT Foundation, to see how the sport has evolved over the last few years, and where we can expect it to go from here.

By: Krystal Clark

VIS Creator™

& Carly Wetzel

VIS Creator™

Topic: Advocacy

March 31 2024

The buzz surrounding women’s basketball has never been bigger. With the NCAA Women’s March Madness tournament kicking off last week, more and more people are embracing what we already know – the sport is thrilling and worthwhile. Riding the high of a record-breaking 2023 March Madness—the title game of last year’s tournament averaged 9.9 million viewers, a 103% increase from 2022—viewership is at its highest in decades. Earlier this month, the Iowa vs Ohio State game garnered a crowd of 4.4 million on ESPN, the highest since 1999. Investors and media companies are (finally) paying attention. 

Earlier this year, broadcasting rights for several NCAA sports went on sale. ESPN seized the opportunity, announcing a $920 million, eight-year agreement with the NCAA. 

Aside from the size of the deal, what makes it so notable is that we will directly benefit; an estimated $65 million annually will be funneled towards the Women’s March Madness tournament, according to the Associated Press, this could mean huge things for the future of the tournament, and collegiate women’s basketball as we know it. 

The deal will come into effect on September 1st, meaning it won’t impact this year’s tournament, but what does this higher valuation mean for both current athletes in the NCAA and future athletes in the sport?

More VISibility, More Opportunities

“Increasing media exposure has been tremendous for women's sports, especially up-and-coming athletes in the NCAA like Caitlin Clark,” says Carly Wetzel, Advocacy and Program Manager at the VOICEINSPORT Foundation.“We are seeing in real-time the impact that media coverage has on the game, women's NCAA basketball games are breaking records almost every week, and women athletes like Clark are arguably the most recognizable names in sports right now.” 

The implications go far beyond the NCAA—increased coverage is vital in creating opportunities for athletes beyond our collegiate careers. Clark’s decision to enter the WNBA draft, for example, has already created a surge in ticket prices for the Indiana Fever (the projected number one pick’s likely team) as fans scramble to purchase a chance to see her play. Currently, the average price for a ticket to watch the Fever is $140, up 133% from last year’s $60 average. 

The hope is that the excitement fans have for the collegiate basketball scene continues to translate to the WNBA as major talents like Clark, Angel Reese, and Paige Bueckers make their way to the league. “It's hard to root for a team [or a player] that you've never heard of before,” says Wetzel. Giving these athletes the chance to be seen changes everything.

“These young women have grown the game immensely and there needs to be increased investment in the pro leagues to ensure that they have the opportunity to have long, successful careers just like the men do,” Wetzel says.

With only 12 WNBA teams compared to the 30 that make up the NBA, there are very few opportunities for us at the next level. Newer leagues, such as Athletes Unlimited, are attempting to address this issue, but there still lies a shortage of tangible options for those ready for the next chapter of competition. However, change may be on the horizon.

“When women athletes get exposure and visibility, it prompts the investment and attention needed to create and support professional leagues that allow them to continue their careers at the highest level,” Wetzel says. 

Less than 10% of all professional sports in the U.S. are played by women, according to Wasserman. However, thanks to increased media coverage, committed fans are returning to watch their favorite players, causing a growth in our opportunities post-college. 

“I think that if organizations like the NCAA and networks stop underselling women's sports and fully tap into the market power of women, they'll find the bigger deals these women deserve aren't risky but rather a goldmine.”

Carly Wetzel, advocacy and program manager at the VOICEINSPORT Foundation

Another Small Step in the Right Direction

The progress we have made is significant, especially considering where the women’s National Tournament was just three years ago. In 2021, college basketball star Sedona Prince uploaded a video to social media exposing the blatant disparity in resources between the men’s and women’s national basketball tournaments. While the men received a state-of-the-art training room, the women were left with the bare minimum: one shelf of dumbbells and a stack of yoga mats. 

Her video highlighted the dark side of the NCAA’s operations—the women’s basketball tournament was seen as an afterthought to the men. The millions of views on the viral video and pushback from the biggest names in the sporting world, including Steph Curry, caused the NCAA to commission a gender equity review. 

This review brought changes to the women’s tournament: more teams were selected to compete, branding changed to include the March Madness moniker, and the NCAA pledged to close the gap in spending for the two competitions. 

Prince’s actions served as a catalyst for action. With the increase in visibility of the sport, interest in basketball is at record levels, from both viewers and businesses. Last year, the national women’s tournament increased marketing partners from 14 sponsors and 22 advertisers to 15 sponsors and nearly 100 advertisers. In fact, according to Adweek, last year, NCAA partner Aflac moved all sponsorship funds from the men’s tournament in Houston to the women’s tournament in Dallas. 

But There's Still Miles To Go

Women’s basketball is making gains but there’s still progress needed. According to The Athletic, a 2021 report suggested the women’s tournament could earn at least $15 million more per year if it were sold on its own, rather than in a bundle with other sports. The NCAA didn’t unbundle the tournament and never took the offer to the open market, meaning no other networks could make bids.

“There's this idea that as women, we have to be grateful for every single scrap of progress thrown our way,” she says. “To some extent, appreciation for steps forward is necessary, but I think that if organizations like the NCAA and networks stop underselling women's sports and fully tap into the market power of women, they'll find the bigger deals these women deserve aren't risky but rather a goldmine.”

In a year where the economic power of women has been impossible to ignore (just think Barbie, The Eras Tour, and Beyoncé), networks should recognize our power as consumers. The lucrative opportunities are there for women’s sports, so why not capitalize on them? 

Over the last five years, media coverage of women’s sports has tripled, rising from 4% to 15%, according to a Wasserman report. Alongside this, ticket sales have also skyrocketed. The 2024 Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament experienced a sell-out arena for the first time. As well as this, ticket prices for this year’s Women’s National Tournament have surged to meet demand. Currently, get-in prices for tickets are more expensive than the men for both the Final Four and the title game. We are making small wins, and it is important to celebrate them, but they are only a few parts of the bigger picture. 

At the end of the day, the growth of a sport comes from investors, and while this new NCAA-ESPN deal is a small step in the right direction, leaps and bounds need to be made to make the sport more equitable. Giving these women the deserved opportunity to succeed and showcase their talent through coverage and investments will only bring more excitement and attention to the sport, benefiting everyone involved.

Take Action

Want to learn more about media coverage for women in sports? Check out Carly’s latest article here.