The NCAA women's Division I college basketball championship will air on ABC in 2023 and 2024, according to the Athletic, after years of being played on ESPN. It'll be the first time the women's championship will appear on network television since CBS owned the rights in the 1980s and early 1990s.
ESPN president of programming and original content Burke Magnus told the Athletic this decision had been planned for some time but had to be pushed until 2023 because of programming scheduling conflicts and the COVID-19 pandemic (ESPN and ABC are both owned by the same parent company, Disney).
“Primetime on Sunday is a big night of entertainment for the broadcast network, and they have made commitments, in this case to ‘American Idol,’ that go out for many, many years,” Magnus said. “We started the process a couple of years ago to try and clear ABC one way or the other. That’s what got us focused on the afternoon. It became a collaborative conversation with the NCAA. Obviously, they’re going to still play their semifinals on Friday night in prime time, but that’s certainly enough rest if they come back and play late afternoon on Sunday.”
This won't be the first time the women's tournament will air on ABC. Two first-round matchups and four Sweet 16 games were played on ABC as well.
The network certainly won't lack viewership for this game, either. This past year's championship match between South Carolina and UConn was the most-watched title game in 18 years, per ESPN, and the most-watched men's or women's college basketball game to air on ESPN since 2008. The game garnered 4.85 million viewers, peaking at 5.91 million, which was an 18% increase from 2021 and a 31% increase from 2019 (the 2020 tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For reference, the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals between the Colorado Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning averaged 4.6 million viewers on ABC.
While the title game will be played Sunday, April 2, at 3 p.m. ET at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, Magnus added that he hopes to bump the game up to the network's primetime slot in the future.
“The planets have to align a little bit there,” Magnus said. “Right now, Sunday is one of ABC’s best nights as it has been for some time with ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘American Idol’ and so forth. We’re getting the best of both worlds here, honestly, by having a championship in the late afternoon, leading into their news coverage and then their prime-time lineup on Sunday night. It’s certainly something that we want to consider at some point in the future, but right now we’re happy to get this accomplished and go from there.”