March Madness Daily: The NCAA’s Undervalued Women’s TV Rights

Emily Caron and Eben Novy-Williams
·4 min read

Last week the NCAA released never-before-public data that shed light on an increasingly disconcerting matter: the inequality between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

The NCAA document compared the budgets for the men’s and women’s basketball championships in 2019, the last year both were completed. In it, the NCAA said the women’s event operated at a $2.8 million loss—the largest loss of any NCAA championship—as opposed to a $917.8 million profit for the men’s side, but that number is easily misunderstood. The biggest pieces of revenue for both tournaments are their TV deals, but the NCAA sells the two very differently.

The men’s tournament is sold on its own, and Turner and CBS are currently paying around $771 million annually for that right. That number will soon eclipse $1 billion. The women’s tournament is sold as part of a much larger package of more than 20 NCAA championships all wrapped into a 14-year, $500 million deal. That contract with ESPN isn’t itemized for each of the events, meaning the “loss” reported in 2019, and presumably all the years earlier, isn’t calculated off a direct list of revenue and expenses, but rather using an allocated number from a much larger contract.

The distinction is important. The women’s tournament is given 15.9% of the ESPN contract, a number the NCAA says is chosen by a third party, which puts its 2019 media haul at $6.1 million. That’s just $2 million (or about 50%) more than the NIT—the invitational for teams not good enough for the NCAA’s 68-team March Madness field—despite the fact that the women’s event in 2019 featured twice as many games and its final was viewed by nearly five times as many people.

“If its allotment is around 15%, then it’s undervalued,” said William Mao, vice president of media rights consulting at Octagon. “It’s not just one of the 24 or 25 championships in the deal; it’s one of the most-watched and most consumed on a viewership basis. It should be a lot more.”

To get a full, honest accounting of the profitability of the women’s tournament, the NCAA would likely need to sell its media rights separately, as it does for the men. In that scenario, it’s not unreasonable to think it could fetch at least $20 million per year, according to Mao, a number that’s more than triple its current price and one that would surely make it profitable under the NCAA’s 2019 accounting.

That’s what should be done, according to America East Conference commissioner Amy Huchthausen, one of 10 female commissioners in Division I.

“Clearly, the men’s tournament is positioned to maximize revenue. Can we say the same about the women’s?” Huchthausen wrote Friday in a Sportico op-ed. “[The ESPN deal] provides a measure of financial certainty, but it does not provide women’s basketball (or any of the other sports, for that matter) an incentive to grow. This creates a spiral, reducing the incentive for the NCAA to increase its investment since there would be little to zero ROI.”

Sportico will be publishing one short business highlight every weekday (and on some weekend days) during the three-week NCAA tournament.

March 18: The NCAA’s Billion-Dollar Empire is Built on Basketball

March 19: How Much is an NCAA Tournament Win Worth?

March 20: Men’s vs. Women’s NCAA Tournament Money

March 21: Indexing the NCAA’s Corporate Sponsors

March 22: Largest Financial Mismatch Produces Biggest Upset

March 23: As Top Seeds Lose, Sportsbooks Win

March 24: #NotNCAAProperty Reaches Millions Online

March 25: Sidelined in 2020, TV Advertisers are Back in Force

March 26: Loyola’s Rambling Flutie Effect

March 27: Juwan Howard vs. Dawn Staley Money Matchup

March 28: The Other NCAA Men’s Tournament is a Profit Machine

March 29: UCLA, Under Armour Ignore Each Other During Run

March 30: Odd Start Times A Result of Cash Crunch

March 31: The Pac-12’s Surprise $38.7 Million Payday

April 1: Alston Hearing May Alter NCAA’s NIL Plans

April 2: How Taxpayers Sustain Indianapolis’ Sports Palace

April 3: Paige Bueckers and UConn Lead Social Media Growth

More from