For years, there’s been discussion about the NCAA women’s basketball tournament bringing in much less money for media rights than it could thanks to it being bundled with a wide range of other NCAA championships rather than sold on its own. That’s received a lot of criticism from women’s basketball players, coaches, and fans, and that led to the NCAA hiring media consultants from Endeavor last fall to evaluate the best path for those championships when the current deal ends after the 2023-24 season.
Since then, it’s been looking more and more likely the women’s basketball tournament will indeed be sold separately. The stellar ratings for this year’s tournament further helped with that. And Sports Business Journal‘s Abe Madkour wrote in July that it “seems like a certainty” this tournament will be spun off.
But Madkour also noted the “balancing act” that new NCAA president Charlie Baker and his staff will have to find there. Spinning off more and more championships (many have also advocated for baseball, women’s softball, women’s gymnastics, and women’s volleyball) could leave few takers for what’s left in the package. And Carol Stiff, the 31-year-ESPN veteran (she retired in 2021 and was vice president, women’s sports programming at that point) who helped create that bundled package, brought that up in comments to SBJ’s Michael Smith in a piece published Monday:
“This is a pivotal time in women’s sports,” said Stiff, a women’s basketball Hall of Famer who retired from ESPN in 2021. “I’m not in favor of breaking up the bundle. Not only do you have the crown jewel in women’s basketball, but look at the growth of the other sports — softball, volleyball, gymnastics. All of that comes into play. And not just women’s sports either – look at what the NCAA and ESPN have done together in baseball and lacrosse, just to name a couple. This is about assigning a value for comparison purposes – the value for the whole is much stronger together.
“Let’s say you take women’s basketball out of it and those rights go somewhere else besides ESPN, what happens then? Who’s going to do for those championships what ESPN has done, not just in the championships, but in the regular season as well? Do not undervalue the thousands of hours produced on ABC/ESPN networks.”
Stiff does have a point there. All of women’s basketball, softball, volleyball, and gymnastics championships certainly could be sold individually, and that might maximize revenues and exposure for those particular sports, but it could have negative impacts for the other sports currently in the packages. (And while volleyball, gymnastics, and softball are seeing their own ratings successes, basketball does seem to be the biggest selling point here, so even those sports might hit some issues with a basketball unbundling.) And Stiff has maybe even a stronger point about what might happen with regular season coverage in any of these sports if the championships exit ESPN; there’s certainly more incentive to show regular-season content (and show it in high-profile spots, including on the main ESPN network and on ABC) if you also have championship rights.
With all that said, though, there are strong arguments for spinning off women’s basketball as well. And depending on what the offers wind up being there, that could wind up being really good for that sport. And Stiff obviously has her own perspectives and biases from being involved in the creation of the current setup. But her comments here are still an interesting note at the overall picture, and why this is set up the way it is. And they illustrate the balancing act the NCAA will face with this decision.