Disney Breathes Easy as Ratings Titan Iowa Advances to the Sweet 16

That loud whooshing noise you heard bellowing out of western Connecticut last night was the sound of ESPN breathing a sigh of relief as Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes advanced to the Sweet 16.

As has been the case throughout the college hoops season, Clark’s impact on the March Madness TV ratings is hard to overlook. According to Nielsen live-same-day data, Iowa’s 64-54 win over West Virginia averaged 4.9 million viewers on ESPN, far and away the biggest audience for a non-Final Four/championship game telecast in the history of the women’s tourney.

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While the score may seem to indicate otherwise, Monday night’s game was a nail-biter, with the score knotted up at 52 with under three minutes to go. A late 12-2 run would send the Hawkeyes on to Albany, where they’ll face fifth-seed Colorado. This is a revenge game for the Buffaloes, who just a year ago fell to Iowa 87-77 in the very same round.

Should Clark & Co. get through Saturday’s challenge—which airs on ABC—they could face their nemeses from LSU, who’ll square off with No. 2 seed UCLA earlier that same day.

Disney’s ad sales team naturally wouldn’t be averse to seeing Iowa fight its way back into the title game, as Clark is clearly the biggest draw of the tournament. (Iowa’s first-round game against Holy Cross averaged 3.23 million viewers on ABC, a viewership record that stood for all of three days.) Given the exponential increase in ratings across the sport this season, an Iowa showdown with title favorite South Carolina might well surpass last year’s 9.92 million-viewer mark.

For all the hype about Clark, however, Iowa isn’t the only team to put up big numbers thus far. Leading into Monday night’s WVU-Iowa battle, the 6 p.m. ET UConn-Syracuse game averaged just shy of 2.1 million viewers, while LSU’s 83-56 blowout of Middle Tennessee on Sunday also topped the 2 million mark.

As the women’s tourney heats up, the men are doing their usual outsized numbers—although the record-setting pace of the first couple days has quieted down in the run-up to the Sweet 16. After having averaged 10.8 million viewers per window over the first three days of March Madness, CBS and the TNT Sports networks (TNT/TBS/truTV) are flat versus last year’s deliveries (9.06 million). On a game-by-game basis, the four partners are currently averaging a hair under 3 million viewers.

Basketball royalty largely have been responsible for the biggest TV turnouts thus far, as North Carolina’s 85-69 victory over Michigan State on CBS averaged 10 million viewers in Saturday primetime, topping lead-in Gonzaga-Kansas (8.28 million). Fellow blue blood Duke averaged 7.8 million with its Sunday primetime win over James Madison, although the Blue Devils were down a twinge compared to their CBS lead-in (Purdue-Utah State, 8.08 million).

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