Axios Pro Exclusive Content

NCAA Women's basketball season tips off ahead of media rights deal

Angel Reese (right) and Caitlin Clark from the 2023 women's basketball championship game. Photo: Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

As the college basketball season begins Monday night, there is arguably more intrigue for the women's side of the court this year compared to the men.

Why it matters: The growth of women's sports will be tested by how this year's women's basketball season can follow up last year's record-breaking run, which comes as the NCAA considers whether it should sell those rights separately.

The big picture: The NCAA's rights deal with ESPN for its championships ends next August and is likely to unbundle the women's basketball championship from those for its next deal.

  • While major conferences such as the Big 12 and SEC negotiate their own rights, the NCAA controls the ones for its championships, with a major exception being the College Football Playoff.
  • Up until now, the NCAA has bundled the rights to its championships, except for the men's basketball tournament and both men's and women's Division I golf.
  • ESPN has paid the NCAA roughly $40 million annually during its current 12-year deal. A report in 2021 found that the women's tournament by itself would be worth $81 million to $112 million in annual rights fees.
  • Along with women's basketball, the NCAA is considering separate agreements for women's volleyball, the Frozen Four, College World Series and Women's College World Series.

Yes, but: Breaking out those sports could make it harder for lesser-viewed ones — such as swimming, gymnastics, bowling and fencing — to garner TV dollars because those sports rely on being packaged with more popular ones.

Be smart: The epic rivalry between Iowa's Caitlin Clark and LSU's Angel Reese drove record viewership of the 2023 NCAA championship game, and both players return this season.

  • Both are entering their senior season and will likely be among the top draft picks in next year's WNBA draft, boosting the growing pro league as well.
Go deeper