Women’s basketball national championship was most watched basketball game at any level since 2019

Everyone watches women’s sports, and the Division I women’s national championship game on Sunday between Iowa and South Carolina put a big exclamation point on that statement: It was the most-watched basketball game — men’s or women’s, college or professional — since 2019.

The game averaged 18.7 million viewers and peaked at 24 million viewers. It was the most-watched sporting event since 2019, excluding football and the Olympics.

Supporters of women in sports have always known the potential existed for record-breaking viewership if only the product was given the platform on which to grow and thrive. Despite years of systemic inequity in coverage and investment, the women’s game is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

The NCAA “recently signed a new eight-year, $920 million TV deal with ESPN to cover its 40 other championships, including the women’s basketball tournament, which has seen a significant uptick in ratings and ticket sales. That new deal will pay the NCAA an average of $115 million per year starting next year, up from the current ESPN deal, which paid $45.2 million in 2023.” This was negotiated before the exponential increase in viewership during this year’s women’s March Madness Tournament.

The new media rights deal values women’s March Madness at $65 million annually, more than half of the $115 million yearly total ESPN will be paying. Thus, the women’s side of the game could become more lucrative for conferences and schools if the NCAA starts to pay school “units” for wins in the women’s tournament.

Around $200 million is up for grabs on the men’s side of March Madness this year because of a revenue distribution model set up to compensate conferences with teams in the NCAA Tournament. These payments are known as “units.” The conferences will receive payment for each win a team in their conference has in the tournament, but only for the men’s side of the game. Teams such as UConn, South Carolina and Iowa, which have dominated in recent years, will not receive any revenue distribution for their wins in women’s March Madness. South Carolina has won three national championships since 2017, but no revenue was distributed to the conference for the team’s stellar performances.

There are 132 units available this March Madness for the men’s side of the game in 2024, each valued at approximately $2 million.

However, with the new media rights deal, record-breaking viewership and elevated interest in the women’s side of the game, conferences could begin to see units distributed to them as early as 2025. This will put an impetus on schools to invest in their women’s basketball programs since there could be an extremely lucrative payout for them at the end of postseason play.

Story originally appeared on Rookie Wire