NCAA bundles women’s basketball into $920m, eight-year ESPN deal

(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has agreed a new eight-year domestic and international rights deal with ESPN for 40 of its championships in an agreement worth $920m (€840m).

The deal includes the Division I women’s basketball tournament, which the NCAA and IMG, who served as the media advisor along with fellow Endeavor-owned company WME Sports, had been weighing up selling separately from the 39 other championships. Domestically, the men’s NCAA basketball tournament rights are held by CBS and Warner Bros. Discovery until 2032 in a 14-year deal worth $10.8bn.

The 40 championships in the ESPN deal comprise 21 women’s and 19 men’s events with international rights to all those events as well as the Division I men’s basketball tournament. Tennis, athletics, men’s gymnastics, women’s D-II and D-III volleyball and basketball and men’s D-II and D-III basketball championships are included. ESPN also has full rights to the NIT and WNIT basketball tournaments and FCS football.

The deal’s value represents a 300-per-cent increase per year from the prior 14-year agreement with ESPN and also includes the broadcaster airing selected shows on linear networks for a minimum of 10 of the championships. The agreement is effective September 1.

The NCAA told CNBC that an additional $29m annually would be contributed to production and marketing costs.

Charlie Baker, the NCAA president, told the Associated Press that IMG and WME Sports estimated 57 per cent of the value of the deal is tied directly to the women’s March Madness basketball tournament. Baker confirmed that the deal has an average annual value of $115m.

“The ESPN networks and platforms will exclusively present a record number of championships, including all rounds of several marquee events that, together with the NCAA, we have grown over time,” said ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro. “This unprecedented deal also further strengthens The Walt Disney Company’s industry-leading commitment to women’s sports and will help fuel our continued growth, including in the critical streaming space.”

“This groundbreaking new ESPN deal guarantees the NCAA significant increases in rights fees, investment in production and promotion, original content and storytelling, and multi-platform viewership options with a partner that has proven integral to the growth of its championships and women’s sports,” said Hillary Mandel, executive vice-president and head of Americas for media at IMG, and Karen Brodkin, executive vice-president and co-head of WME Sports in a joint statement.

“The NCAA has worked in earnest over the past year to ensure that this new broadcast agreement provides the best possible outcome for all NCAA championships, and in particular women’s championships,” said Baker in a statement. “Having one, multi-platform home to showcase our championships provides additional growth potential along with a greater experience for the viewer and our student-athletes.”

The women’s basketball tournament’s increase in value was underlined by the 9.9 million viewers watching Louisiana State defeat Iowa in the 2023 national championship game. That figure was a 103-per-cent increase from the previous year as the broadcast was the most-viewed NCAA women’s basketball game ever, peaking at 12.6 million viewers.

The game aired on Disney-owned network television station ABC rather than ESPN but was simulcast on ESPN+, where it was the most-streamed college event on the service’s history. In comparison, the six games of the 2021 National Basketball Association Finals drew an average of 9.9 million viewers for one of the worst NBA Finals viewership series averages.

ESPN is still in search for a strategic partner as the company looks to go entirely direct-to-consumer in the coming years. ESPN’s second quarter, which ended on September 30, 2023, saw the company post an operating income increase of 16 per cent as Disney chief executive Bob Iger continues to pursue the aforementioned changes for the sports platform.