An ESPN Events image for their upcoming gymnastics invitational event. An ESPN Events image for their upcoming gymnastics invitational event.

Part of the continued growth in women’s college sports is on the events side, and ESPN is leaning into that. Their ESPN Events side, which does owned-and-operated events, has previously done events in women’s college basketball and in softball, and now they’re expanding into gymnastics.

On Wednesday, ESPN Events announced their first-ever owned and operated women’s gymnastics invitational event. The to-be-named event will be held in Salt Lake City on Saturday, January 13, 2024 and feature the Utah Utes, the Oklahoma Sooners, the LSU Tigers, and the UCLA Bruins (all teams competing in the NCAA national championships this weekend). The event is also set for Oklahoma on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2025, and the Sooners and Utes are confirmed for that one as well. Both of those events are also confirmed to be broadcast on ABC. ESPN Events vice president Clint Overby spoke to AA on this via phone Tuesday ahead of the announcement, and he said gymnastics was the next logical property for them to expand to.

“It’s for all the right reasons. The sport continues to have great coverage on our air, its popularity continues to rise. It sits at the intersection for us between meeting the needs of intercollegiate athletes while serving sports fans. It serves so many positives for us. It’s a natural connection.”

Overby said the ESPN Events teams works closely with the programming team over at ESPN, and an increased ESPN programming focus on women’s sports has paved the way for more ESPN Events work there.

“We always want to make sure we’re aligned with programming, and communicative and aware of what the sports opportunities are. Obviously, we’ve gotten our start in college football and college basketball. But over the last few years, our business has morphed into other sports and other sport categories as college sports has gained popularity and reach.”

“More specifically, we’ve grown in women’s basketball with PKI [the Phil Knight Invitational] last year, as well as the Jumpman Invitational [events that featured both men’s and women’s teams]. We have the Clearwater Invitational, a softball event. So we see opportunity in coverage growth in multiple sports categories, and this is just one more.”

With ESPN Events properties, there’s more to think about than just what works for TV. It’s also important to consider what works in terms of in-person attendance, and where to put the event is a key focus there.

“We want to be geographically aligned with where the center of the sport is,” Overby said. “That sometimes is a moving target. But we do think that being in Salt Lake City in year one is a natural fit; the fanbase is there, people like that marketplace, there’s a lot of great connections there. And the audience, from a TV standpoint, we believe has been established. So I think from our standpoint, meeting the needs from an audience standpoint is the primary goal, and then we can figure out the second part with respect to where the audience is willing to travel to or congregate to in terms of being there in person.”

Overby said it’s also key to get top teams locked in, and they think they’ve done so here.

“Any time you can get four of the best teams out there, and I know there are many great teams out there, but we’re fortunate to have what we believe are four of the best, it brings credibility. It’s certainly a showcase, in my mind, more importantly, of the value of the sport, that those teams want to try to participate together in a premium event like this.”

Overby said having this aired on broadcast TV on ABC helps to show just how big women’s gymnastics has become. And it’s worked for ESPN and ABC on the broadcasting and advertising sales side as well, with 86 percent cash sell through this season for all events inclusive of the regular season and the NCAA championship (83 percent for the regular season, 91 percent currently for Thursday’s NCAA semifinals, 100 percent for Saturday’s NCAA final on ABC). Overby said that all speaks to why this makes sense for ABC.

“It speaks more to the value of the property than it does to ABC wanting to do it. ABC for years has been recognized as a premium sports brand with ESPN on ABC. But I think more importantly, it demonstrates the value and the growth of women’s gymnastics on our air. I think they go hand in hand.”

This also speaks to a larger growth in women’s sports, in Overby’s mind. And he thinks ESPN programming on those sports and ESPN Events diving into those sports has been part of that.

“I think we’ve seen that over the last couple of years,” he said. “We’ve seen it in softball, we’ve seen it in women’s basketball, we’ve seen it in women’s gymnastics. The more coverage we provide a particular sport or sport category, we’ve certainly seen the correlation in the audience finding it and growing with it.”

And Overby said he thinks they can make this something that stretches well beyond just the two locked-in years they have so far.

“That sits on us to make sure it comes across as a success. We want to make sure we set up it up for the proper success, making sure we have the right teams, which we think we do, in the right location, which we think we’ve established as well. So I think the ingredients are already there. And once we get year one effectively locked and going next January, I think its future is pretty well set. We’re excited to be in this space, we’re excited to representing ESPN and ABC in this endeavor, and we look forward to a great future with this sport category and these events.”

[ESPN Events Gymnastics]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.