March Madness 2023: Women’s Media Rights Could Get Complicated

With just three games left in women’s March Madness, questions loom about the NCAA tournament’s broadcast future. But the solution many want to see—the women’s basketball championship with its own television deal—could be more complicated than it seems.

Right now, the women’s season finale is part of a large package of more than 20 NCAA championships that ESPN holds the rights to as part of a 14-year, $500 million deal that runs through 2023-24. That package includes most NCAA championships aside from men’s basketball (though it does include international men’s March Madness rights) and football.

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The NCAA is preparing to negotiate a new deal for that package, and many in women’s basketball hope their tournament will be spun off into its own deal—as is the case for the men’s tournament, which will soon bring in more than $1 billion annually from Turner and CBS.

A gender equity review commissioned in 2021 by the NCAA estimated the annual broadcast rights for women’s basketball could be worth upwards of $80 million, or even $100 million—more than double the roughly $35 million ESPN pays the NCAA each year for the entirety of the current championship package and significantly more than the single-digit millions the women’s tournament is given credit for. The possibility of a separate deal is backed by some of the sport’s most respected voices, including South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, who spoke during the tournament about her belief that “women’s basketball can stand on its own.”

The NCAA, for its part, is exploring its options. Earlier this year, the governing body hired Endeavor to consult as it prepares for the upcoming talks, which are not expected to begin in earnest until later this year. Some outside media experts, several of whom participated in the NCAA’s bidding process, warn about potential unintended consequences of such a move. None dispute that the women’s tournament is undervalued, but they do question if selling it separately is the right solution.

“If you take that jewel out of the crown, does anybody still want the crown?” William Mao, SVP of media rights consulting at Octagon, said. “That’s the risk because there are so many other championships that are tied together here. … There clearly is more value that could be had for the women’s championship on its own, but the broader consideration here from a strategic perspective is what does that do to potential value of everything else?”

Spinning the women’s basketball tournament off into its own media rights deal would also inherently lead to additional questions about what other properties might deserve their own deals, several consultants argue. Those in consideration would likely be some of the NCAA’s more popular championship event—baseball, softball, volleyball and hockey, for example—which could further dilute the value of the remaining events.

“In my view, the question is: What is the best overall deal the NCAA can get?” Tag Garson, head of global media at Wasserman, said. “You need make sure that you’re in a position to drive as much revenue as you can and create as much reach as possible. If that can be done in a bifurcated package, terrific. But what we’ve seen with the tremendous growth that sports on the college level have had over the past couple of decades, primarily driven by ESPN and ABC, it begs the question, does it make sense to radically change that paradigm?”

This is more than a decision about which broadcast partner is the right fit for the future of this package. Instead, the NCAA must figure out how to best sell the championships under its domain to maximize and, importantly, properly attribute value. In theory, the NCAA and ESPN could strike two separate deals—one for the women’s basketball rights and another for the remaining championships, but several experts, Garson included, believe that is unlikely.

“That’s just a matter of separating contracts and putting different values on them,” he said. “But I’m not sure ESPN wants to decide for the NCAA how to allocate their money.”

Acknowledging the need to establish greater value for some of the bigger properties in the package, Mao offers an alternative solution: the governing body could still license the rights to one broadcast partner in a package deal while contractually assigning specific values to some of the foundational pieces, including the women’s March Madness tournament.

While the NCAA still has several months to establish its preferred means to a better end, the market could make some of these decisions for the governing body, Mao explains. If the NCAA were to run an auction-style sale of the rights, it could leave all options—a singular package or separate deals—on the table for potential bidders to consider before assessing which makes the most sense.

Instead of telling an interested media partner, “‘You can only buy the entire sheet cake,’ you say, ‘People who want to buy the entire sheet, you can definitely bid on that and tell us how much you’re willing to offer economically and distribution-wise for that. But we know there could also be interest from people who want to buy slices of it,’” Mao says.

“The goal of running it from an auction perspective is you can see all types of the combinations, what their value is and where certain puzzle pieces can fit together that still allow for an optimal distribution and an optimal revenue outcome.”

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