By Brady Entwistle
So far this season, women’s college basketball has experienced a significant increase in exposure.
Such an increase has been incredibly important to the growth of the game, as the narrative surrounding women’s hoops has long been that no one watches, or that no one wants to.
When put on the big stage and given the opportunity to play on major broadcast networks, viewership alone has shown that the women’s game does have the potential to reach broader audiences. In recent years, top 25 matchups and the NCAA Tournament are finding viewers on prime time, and the numbers speak for themselves.
The November 10th season opener on ESPN featured a battle between two of the top programs in the league, as North Carolina State hosted South Carolina. ESPN announced that the top-five matchup drew in the most viewers for a women’s college basketball season opener since 2013, raking in a total of 506,000, with the audience peaking at nearly 700,000. Viewership was up 179% from last year’s debut, airing on ESP2 to 181,000 televisions.
To provide further context, the network’s 2013 season opener between Stanford and UConn attracted a total of 536,000 viewers.
In 2020, the Final Four championship game between Stanford and Arizona also showed impressive numbers after it drew in the most viewers for a women’s final in seven years, while the men’s championship game saw a drop of nearly 14% from the previous year. The women’s game was up almost 9%, attracting a total of nearly 4.1 million viewers.
Not only did the championship earn higher ratings, the national semifinals, Elite Eight, and Sweet 16 all saw an increase in viewership. At the time, ESPN reported that the Sweet 16 was up an impressive 67% from 2019 when the last tournament took place.
For the first time in collegiate basketball history, all games played in the Sweet 16 and onward were nationally televised, with six airing on ABC alone. This was the first occurrence since 1995 of any women’s tournament games being backed by a major broadcast network.
Over the years, research has shown that airing games on broadcast networks has allowed women’s college basketball to reap the benefits of greater exposure. Last season, UConn, a dominant mainstay, helped elevate women’s basketball by televising its meeting with DePaul on Fox, making it the first women’s game to ever do so. Subsequently, their overtime thriller against South Carolina aired on FS1, which later reported it had set a record for being the most-watched women’s college basketball game in the channel’s history.
This year, the national television schedule includes multiple UConn games being shown on broadcast networks with their matchup against UCLA airing on ABC and their game at Marquette, along with their renewed rivalry with Tennessee, airing on Fox.
Overall, women’s college basketball is evolving as indicated by the growing interest in its games and the expansion of its coverage. UConn’s history-making game on FS1 averaged 461,000 viewers, beating the men’s game that directly followed it.
Along with broadcasting, the NCAA’s inclusion of women’s hoops in the branding of March Madness is another step in the right direction. The recent tradition was to air the games across ESPN channels, giving the women’s tournament a national platform, but separate from March Madness. With the progress made this past season, and the ability to partake in tournament advertising, the women’s game may find itself alongside its counterpart on networks affiliated with March Madness. All of this goes to show that when investing in women’s sports, people will watch.