Apr 1, 2024; Albany, NY, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) cuts the net after defeating the LSU Lady Tigers in the finals of the Albany Regional in the 2024 NCAA Tournament at MVP Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a tough time for sports networks feeling the squeeze of increasing costs and decreasing revenues. The general consensus is that networks have to be more selective when it comes to rights deals and looking to get the most bang for their buck. That’s why the stunning ratings for the NCAA Women’s Tournament has quickly proven that ESPN’s recent renewal for the NCAA Championships has instantly become the best deal in sports.

There was plenty of intrigue when it came to a new television contract for the NCAA Women’s Tournament coming off last year’s record setting 2023 edition. The tournament has long been part of an overall NCAA Championships package with ESPN that also features sports like softball, baseball, volleyball and more. The NCAA was hoping to separate the women’s tournament to sell to the highest bidder. However, the NCAA and ESPN decided to keep the bundle and continue the partnership.

When the new contract kicks in this September, it’ll be an eight year deal at $115 million annually at a 3x increase. It’s believed that $65 million annually is allocated towards the women’s basketball tournament.

Fast forward to March and the tourney has already garnered the highest viewership number for a women’s basketball game in history and we haven’t even hit the Final Four yet. The Iowa-LSU showdown drew 12.3 million viewers while the Elite 8 averaged 6.2 million viewers. The Final Four and championship game could surpass even those milestones.

To put the 12.3 million number in perspective, it would be the 8th most-watched non-NFL sporting event in 2023. It would rank ahead of The Masters, four NBA Finals games, every World Series game, and every Stanley Cup Final game. And this is for a property that costs less annually than the ESPN contract for the American Athletic Conference at $83.3 million per year.

Sure, once Caitlin Clark leaves for the WNBA, the ratings may drop. But even non-Iowa games are up huge from last year. And with new stars emerging like USC’s Juju Watkins, the future is still unquestionably bright.

Oh, and those other NCAA sports? Many of them (especially women’s sports) are likewise seeing increased interest and ratings as well, so this NCAA Championships deal will only get better and better.

With ESPN’s business at a crossroads and the future more uncertain than ever, it badly needed a win. You can bet they are cutting down the nets to celebrate in Bristol.

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