Caitlin Clark driving against LSU. Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives to the basket as LSU Lady Tigers forward Angel Reese (10) defends during the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament between Iowa and LSU at MVP Arena, Monday, April 1, 2024 in Albany, N.Y.

It was easy to imagine that the LSU Tigers-Iowa Hawkeyes clash in the Elite Eight of the women’s basketball NCAA Tournament Monday would do quite well. And some even projected this one, led by Iowa star Caitlin Clark, would surpass last year’s average of 9.9 million for the NCAA Tournament title clash between the teams. There were reasons to doubt it would hit that height, including this coming two rounds earlier and on cable ESPN versus broadcast ABC (and on a Monday night rather than a Sunday afternoon), but there were also reasons for that optimism.

And, in the end, this game not only hit that mark, it surpassed it. ESPN announced Tuesday that Nielsen final viewership totals had this game with an average of 12.3 million viewers. And that was not only the best-ever for any women’s college basketball game but the best-ever for any college basketball game on ESPN networks:

That was handily ahead of most projections for this. And this would have been the eighth-most-watched non-NFL sporting event (in the U.S.) of any type in 2023, beating one men’s Final Four game, most NBA Finals games, all World Series and Stanley Cup Finals games, the CFP semifinals, and more.

This also easily beat most past women’s college basketball games. Per Jon Lewis of Sports Media Watch, here are the previous five most-watched NCAA women’s basketball games. That list features three from former USC star Cheryl Miller during the Trojans’ legendary 1980s run:

#1: 1983 final, USC def. Louisiana Tech (CBS): 11.84 million

Cheryl Miller’s first national championship attracted an audience of 11.84 million viewers, up 35% from the inaugural title game a year earlier and still the largest NCAA women’s basketball audience ever recorded by Nielsen.

#2: 1986 final, Texas def. USC (CBS): 11.22 million

In the final college game played by Cheryl Miller, USC fell short to Texas in a national title game viewed by 11.22 million viewers — a 62 percent increase over the prior year.

#3: 2023 final, LSU def. Iowa (ABC and ESPN2): 9.92 million

After CBS gave up rights to the women’s tournament in 1995, the event moved to ESPN. For 25 years, all ESPN coverage was limited to its cable networks, and viewership declined accordingly. It took until 2023 before the national title game aired on broadcast television again, just in time for a sharp upswing in interest in women’s basketball fueled largely by Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.

#4: 1982 final, Louisiana Tech def. Cheyney State (CBS): 8.79 million

In the first NCAA women’s basketball national championship, 8.79 million viewers tuned in to watch Louisiana Tech (featuring future LSU coach Kim Mulkey) defeat Cheyney State.

#5: 1984 final, USC def. Tennessee (CBS): 8.29 million

Cheryl Miller’s second-straight — and final — national championship was won in front of a television audience of 8.29 million viewers, but that marked a sharp decline from the Trojans’ win the prior year.

It will be interesting to see what this means for women’s basketball viewership going forward. Clark (who has been an incredible viewership force for women’s basketball in general) and Iowa are still alive, and they’ll face another traditionally strong draw Friday when they take on the UConn Huskies in the Final Four (8:40 p.m. ET, ESPN). But LSU’s team was a notable opponent here, one sparking many takes (some of them problematic). We’ll see if the Final Four game (and potentially a title game, if Iowa wins) featuring Clark can top this one. But even if it can’t, this will still be an incredible moment for women’s college basketball.

[ESPN PR on Twitter/X]

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.