Women’s Sports’ TV Rights Boom May Have Finally Arrived

For years, women’s sports was an afterthought for TV, frequently relegated to ESPN2, Fox Sports 2 or ESPNNews, if they were able to secure TV rights at all. It was a self-reinforcing cycle of denial: Women’s sports didn’t rate, so the demand for the rights wasn’t there. But the games rarely got play on the biggest platforms, so the untapped potential could never be met.

But over the last year or so, it seems like a dam has broken, with big new rights deals for soccer and a surge of interest in women’s basketball, with both rightsholders, stakeholders, and marketers seeking a bigger piece of the action.

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Perhaps nothing exemplifies the rise of interest in women’s sports than the April 1 women’s college basketball matchup between Iowa – led by Caitlin Clark – and LSU – led by Angel Reese – a rematch of last year’s championship game, with star power on both sides of the court.

The game averaged 12.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched college basketball game in ESPN history, and the largest audience for any basketball game on ESPN (yes, including the NBA) since 2012. That is, until Iowa’s win over UConn on April 5 drew 14.2 million viewers.

Sunday’s final, in which Iowa lost in a great game to the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, is expected to top even that number, thanks to its Sunday afternoon timeslot on ABC, potentially delivering the biggest numbers for any women’s sporting event in history.

Flora Kelly, who leads ESPN’s research division, wrote in a post on X that “obviously, Iowa & Caitlin Clark have delivered record-breaking audiences in the early rounds of the tournament, but non-Iowa games are also up +74% YoY, signaling widespread momentum across the bracket.”

But the recognition from viewers was a long time coming.

“Worth remembering that ESPN has had the rights to the women’s basketball tournament for decades and only now is giving the game the profile, resources and shoulder programming it deserved. Which only hurt its own investment. Remember that when you see the ratings for these games,” wrote Jane McManus, a former ESPN columnist, on LinkedIn, who also noted: “It’s something I witnessed first hand there, and I also witnessed a lot of incredible advocates for women’s coverage who had a hard time finding real traction. And at the same time, ESPN has done more women’s coverage, and hired more women, than any other network.”

ESPN, of course, has carried the women’s tournament since 1996, and the WNBA since its inception. Robin Roberts, a former ESPN star who know anchors Good Morning America, was one of ESPN’s first hosts covering the women’s NCAA tourney.

But even before the Iowa-LSU game, interest in women’s sports was rising. The National Women’s Soccer League is kicking off a new TV rights deal this year — worth an estimated $60 million per year —  with ESPN, CBS Sports, Prime Video and Scripps, with all partners promising higher profiles and more exposure.

And now the WNBA – with Clark and Reese now committed for this year’s draft – is embarking on its new rights talks in tandem with the NBA.

On April 5 Prime Video, which has made sports a top strategic priority, announced a multi-year extension with the WNBA, a deal that includes 21 games per season including the Championship Game of the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup.

And ESPN, the WNBA’s other critical rights partner, is similarly enthusiastic.

“I’ve actually never been more bullish about women’s sports and I think it’s quite evident that its popularity has grown tremendously,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said, in response to a question at the company’s annual shareholder meeting April 3, noting the ratings for Iowa-LSU. “That’s just a tremendous, tremendous affirmation that not only have women’s sports arrived, but their potential is so tremendous. And ESPN is pleased to be part of that and expects to be part of the growth of women’s sports for years to come.”

ESPN chief Jimmy Pitaro, speaking at an Axios event March 19, said that his company expects to negotiate the WNBA together with its NBA rights talks, and expressed similar enthusiasm.

Perhaps just as important as the renewed interest from TV rights partners is interest from advertisers. Sports remains the highest-profile platform in advertising, but women’s sports has long lagged behind leagues like the NBA or NFL, or even the men’s NCAA March Madness tournament.

That is changing, in a significant way.

“We root for the men, we root for the women. Many of our sponsors are tied into both properties,” said Jon Diament, who leads sports ad sales for TNT Sports, which holds the rights to the men’s March Madness tournament. “When you’re an NCAA sponsor, you are a partner for all 90 NCAA championships, including the women’s championships, so we have a dozen sponsors also activating on property with the women’s tournament, so we wish them well. They’re part of the team, even though they’re broadcast on ESPN.”

Perhaps most significantly, on March 27, GroupM (it’s the world’s largest media buying agency) announced a public commitment to double media investment in women’s sports, creating a dedicated marketplace to transact beginning with this year’s upfront.

Advertisers including Ally, Discover, Google, Mars, Nationwide, Unilever and Universal Pictures have all signed on to the effort.

“Fast-growing audiences are watching at a high clip, and subsequently, women’s sports programming is in the ranks with some of the highest rated broadcasts overall,” said Denise Ocasio, Executive Director of Investment, GroupM US. “Advertising alongside women’s sports works.”

But it all comes back to the media partners: The broadcast networks, cable channels and streaming services that not only televise the live games, but produce the shoulder programming, and feature women’s sports in documentaries, docuseries, highlights shows and other programming.

It’s about creating an ecosystem where women’s sports can deliver an audience for rights partners, results for sponsors, and national and international fame for its stars.

On April 4, at a media availability for the NCAA Women’s Final Four, University of Connecticut star Paige Bueckers was asked who the nest big star women’s player will be, with college basketball currently overflowing with talent.

“I think media coverage is important for the game. I think it grows the game. Freshman year, I was the media darling. Everybody was so focused on me and what I did at UConn my freshman year,” The Huskies guard replied, noting the focus on herself, Clark, Reese and USC star JuJu Watkins. “But the media can do a better job making sure everyone gets love… spread it out more.” The media, or at least the major sports rights partners, appear ready to step up

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