Apr 9, 2024 - Sports

South Carolina-Iowa ratings cement women's sports surge

Data: Sports Media Watch, Nielsen; Note: NCAA Championships canceled due to COVID-19; Chart: Axios Visuals

A whopping 18.7 million people watched the South Carolina-Iowa women's NCAA title game on Sunday — a new record for a women's college game and a five-year high for any basketball broadcast, according to ESPN.

Why it matters: The unique star power of Iowa guard Caitlin Clark — hailed as one of the greatest college hoops players of all time — is driving unprecedented momentum around women's sports.

Zoom in: Earlier this year, Clark became the Division 1 all-time leading scorer across both men's and women's basketball — breaking Pete Maravich's 54-year-old record.

  • Her star power helped make this women's basketball season the most-watched in 15 years.

By the numbers: The finals, which aired Sunday on Disney's ESPN and ABC, was the most-watched women's basketball game in history, ESPN said, with viewership averaging 18.7 million and peaking at 24 million.

  • Ratings for the finals were up 89% from last year and up 285% over 2022.

Between the lines: This year's tournament continuously beat viewership records as it progressed.

  • Sunday's game shattered an earlier record of 14.2 million viewers set Friday during the semifinals, when Clark's Hawkeyes beat UConn.
  • Before that, an Elite Eight game between Iowa and LSU — a rematch of last year's title game — set a women's record with 12.3 million viewers.
  • Before this year's tournament, ESPN's most-watched basketball game was Game 7 of the 2018 NBA Eastern Conference finals, in which 13.51 million viewers watched the Cleveland Cavaliers defeat the Boston Celtics.

State of play: The star power behind Clark, LSU's Angel Reese and other women's college players is expected to push newfound interest in the WNBA, which is currently negotiating for a new TV contract beginning in the 2025 season.

  • The WNBA is banking on their brands to help double the value of its existing media rights deals from around $50 million a year to $100 million, beginning next season.
  • Clark is expected to join the Indiana Fever, who have the first pick in next week's WNBA draft.

The intrigue: It's unclear whether the NCAA will continue to draw such high ratings in the absence of some of this season's biggest stars.

  • Friday's Final Four game, for example, between NC State and South Carolina drew just 7.1 million viewers. That was half of the average audience that tuned into Clark's winning performance against UConn that same evening.
  • On the other hand, South Carolina's title was driven by freshmen who will return next year and potentially build followings of their own.

The big picture: Clark's star power fueled huge interest in women's college basketball, but interest in women's sports is rising across the board.

  • The WNBA's 2023 season was its most-watched in more than 20 years.
  • Last year's NCAA Division I women's volleyball championship broke the all-time collegiate volleyball attendance and TV viewership records.
  • The National Women's Soccer League set a new attendance record last year, with more than 1 million fans showing up for games during the 2023 regular season.
  • That popularity has helped led to a surge in NSWL team sales and a record TV deal worth $240 million for the league.

What to watch: Analysts expect the momentum around media rights deals for women's sports to continue as streamers and TV networks fight for eyeballs.

  • "Women's sports provide more affordable options for TV and streaming networks to build live sports portfolios," said eMarketer senior analyst Ross Benes.
Go deeper