ESPN, the NCAA, and USA Water Polo announced Thursday that the 2022 women’s NCAA championship will air on ESPNU. This marks the first time in a decade that the event will be broadcast on national television.
That’s a fairly astounding fact for an Olympic sport. Over the last decade, the amount of cable sports inventory that has been out there has never been higher, and production has only gotten more efficient. Yet in 2021, the women’s championship was streamed on NCAA.com.
This year, at least, that will change.
From ESPN’s announcement:
For the first time in more than a decade, the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship is returning to national television. USA Water Polo, in collaboration with the NCAA and ESPN, is presenting live coverage of the 2022 NCAA Championship final from Canham Natatorium in Ann Arbor, Mich., on ESPNU and streaming on the ESPN app on Sunday, May 8 at 4 p.m. ET.
The field for the 2022 NCAA Tournament will be determined April 25 and will feature nine teams from around the country. Three at-large bids will be awarded in addition to the automatic qualifiers from six conferences: Big West, CWPA, GCC, MAAC, MPSF, and WWPA. USC claimed the 2021 Championship, defeating rival UCLA last spring in Los Angeles.
“America deserves to see the best NCAA women’s teams play for the championship, and USA Water Polo is delighted to televise this game with ESPN,” said Christopher Ramsey, USA Water Polo CEO. “As one of America’s fastest growing sports, we think it is vitally important for this game to be seen by USA Water Polo members — the next generation of scholar athletes who dream of someday winning their own NCAA championship.”
Greg Mescall and USA Water Polo legend Brenda Villa will have the call.
Water polo is obviously still a niche sport, but it has a very devoted following among that niche. Within those enclaves it’s big, though, including in some very big markets like southern California.
There’s an argument here that it’s just one game on ESPN’s third channel. No one would suggest that it’s going to revolutionize the game. But steps like this do make tangible impacts for legitimacy. There’s also just the fact that, even in 2022, there’s still a latent power to something just being on television. We might not consume content the same way now, but seeing an NCAA title game on while scrolling through options is still something that might draw eyes. It also makes it easier to, say, package highlights for a SportsCenter episode or for ESPN.com. And the production values will almost certainly be higher.
It’s a small step, but it’s not nothing.
[ESPN/image courtesy USC Athletics]