What good softball and basketball ratings could mean for women’s sports on TV

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Another season, another round of strong viewership numbers for the Women’s College Softball Tournament and the World Series.

It should come as no surprise: Women’s sports have grown in popularity through many metrics – TV ratings, attendance, funding, participation, opportunities – amid their decades-long quest for fairer treatment since entering Title IX came into force in 1972.

What softball’s televised numbers and strong women’s basketball stats mean is that the NCAA could split these sports into their own media rights deals — or bundle them with their male counterparts — to realize greater value. financial when the contracts end in two years.

And in theory, more money for broadcast rights should mean more support for the championships of these programs. But before we dive deeper into the future of TV rights, let’s take a closer look at last week’s softball results.

Powerhouse Oklahoma’s two-game championship series swept unranked Texas in a Big 12 affair averaging 1.6 million prime-time viewers on ESPN and ESPN2 last week. That’s a healthy number, to be sure, and down only modestly from the record 1.85 million average in 2021 for the Sooners’ three-game win over Florida State.

Oklahoma won the season opener 16-1 Wednesday night in front of an ESPN audience of 1.41 million — a game aired against Game 3 of the NBA Finals (11.52 million, ABC). Softball’s viewership peaked at 1.8 million, the network said.

Game 2 of Championship Softball on Thursday — the Sooners’ 10-5 — averaged 1.74 million with a peak of 2.1 million viewers on ESPN2. No NBA competition that night, but some people (myself included) were at the premiere of the new Jurassic World movie (I generously gave it a C grade), and about 20 million people tuned in to the audience. January 6 congressional uprising aired on several broadcast and cable channels.

That night also saw Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals between the Lightning and the Rangers which averaged 2.48 million viewers on ESPN (which is why softball was pushed back to ESPN2 that night).

So for softball, seeing a slight uptick in Game 2, against strong competition for eyeballs on other channels, is a net positive. Especially since these weren’t close games, and tighter competition and a longer streak usually lead to better viewership. The Sooners’ 2021 championship saw the Seminoles win Game 1 and play closer games, to keep the series compelling.

Yet why was there a drop in viewership compared to 2021? Maybe earlier fatigue is in play? The latter championship was the program’s sixth overall in 15 World Series appearances. Oklahoma has won four of the last six softball titles. Texas, which hadn’t played in the tournament since 2013 and is still chasing its first softball championship, was the tournament’s Cinderella story but ultimately fell short of Oklahoma.

“Difficult to follow a record pace. The absence of Florida State and James Madison (the latter being an upset surprise story in 2021) likely hurt too. Then you end with an absolutely lopsided endgame between Oklahoma and Texas. Maybe there was also an element of inevitability with Oklahoma, which we’ve seen with dominant teams in other sports, ”said Jon Lewis, founder of Sports Media Watch, a site which has been following the sports audience live since 2006.

Last week’s Game 2 also had a championship game record attendance of 12,257 at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, Okla.

The championship series wasn’t the first postseason encounter for the Sooners and Longhorns. Oklahoma defeated Texas 7-2 on June 4 in the Women’s College World Series premiere broadcast on ABC, by ESPN (which handles advertising and production for its sister network). This match averaged 1.25 million viewers for the mid-afternoon Saturday contest.

This year’s full 16-game softball tournament averaged 1 million viewers for ESPN Networks, down from last season’s record average of 1.2 million. There was no tournament in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Three years ago, the tournament averaged 1.05 million viewers.

Prior to the 2021 viewership mark, college softball’s former viewership record was in 2015, averaging 1.19 million viewers. Last year, 10 of the tournament’s 17 games averaged at least 1 million viewers.

It’s worth noting that the Nielsen TV ratings tracker didn’t include out-of-home (OOH) viewership until summer 2020, which means older events don’t have this audience built into their ratings. totals – potentially more than 10% of the total. OOH looks in places like bars, restaurants, hotels, and other people’s homes.

In today’s television landscape, properties such as the Women’s College Basketball Tournament and the Softball Championship have proven to have solid viewership. The value of their broadcast rights, however, was set at a much different time. In an age of declining television usage and cable cuts, such modest ripples in viewership are secondary to the fact that live sports are far more resilient to eyeball drop than most. programs, which means there is still value to unlock in properties such as softball.

The softball tournament is part of the 14-year, $500 million deal ESPN signed with the NCAA in December 2011 for the rights to broadcast 24 college sports championships through 2024. That was before the broadcast continuously, before the cord was cut and in the very beginning of social media – and athletes had no NIL rights which are even more valuable.

Given that the networks have an insatiable thirst for decline-resistant live sports broadcast and streaming rights, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of the sports in this deal get individual or mini-bundle deals in the next round of rights.

This could include women’s basketball and softball. Alternatively, because these sports add weight to the larger set of sports, the NCAA might choose to keep them grouped together in an effort to increase overall financial value.

“Despite decades of criticism from critics to the contrary, there is enough viewership and appetite for women’s sport,” said Mary Jo Kane, director emeritus of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “Advertisers take note, business leaders take note. They see that there is not just an audience but a great thirst to broadcast women’s sports. beyond measure.

While anything could happen, Kane said she wouldn’t be surprised if the next round of NCAA TV deals included separate or bundled deals for popular women’s sports such as softball and basketball.

“All the cards are on the table and the NCAA has the opportunity, some leverage, and the athletes too with NIL,” she said. “Why don’t you try to bundle up and make as much profit and leverage your best? Sport is always a growing industry and women’s sport has proven that to be the case as well.

A media rights expert familiar with NCAA deals said it makes sense to start selling sports championships such as women’s basketball and softball alone or with men’s championships in those sports.

“We recommended that the NCAA do this in our gender equity media report last August,” said Ed Desser of Desser Media Inc., a former top NBA executive who negotiated rights deals. televised for teams from several major leagues and organizations. “We did not consider bundling just women’s basketball and softball, but recommended that at a minimum, the women’s basketball event be sold on its own, and that it was likely that other should be too.”

Desser’s firm was hired by Kaplan Hecker & Fink to complete the NCAA’s review of gender equality in women’s basketball that was released last August. The results showed women’s hoops by 2025 could be worth more than $100 million per season, and he recommended the NCAA hold multiple athletic championships for future rights negotiations.

“Both the College World Series and Women’s Softball reach significant audiences in the spring/summer and would be a compelling combination, especially for a partner who is investing in baseball or has a lack of live sports programming at this time of year. ‘year,’ the report says.

There are risks in unbundling sports such as softball and women’s basketball or bundling them into smaller bundles, an industry insider said.

“I think you have to weigh any possible increase in rights fees against the loss of reach and windows of high-quality programming by a media partner (ESPN) that sees you as key strategic property,” said Patrick Crakes. , media industry analyst and former executive of Fox Sports.

“What happens to other sports when you split them equally into multiple lots? Also, don’t expect any of these properties to get the same view across different platforms and networks as they currently do. What you might end up doing in the pursuit of softball and baseball rights fees is blowing up the biggest package that built a lot of them I would be very careful.

A message has been left with the NCAA.

One thing is certain: ESPN, or whoever ends up buying the rights, will likely pay over $500 million for them. And it’s an open question whether either side would be interested in a 14-year deal again.

On the baseball side, all 64 regional/super regional teams are complete and the eight-team University World Series begins Friday. The teams vying for the championship are Arkansas, Auburn, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Stanford, Texas and Texas A&M in a 10-day double-elimination tournament. Matches will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2.

The tournament begins with Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma at 2 p.m. ET on Friday, followed by Texas vs. Notre Dame at 7 p.m. Both are on ESPN. The finals are scheduled for June 25-27.

(Photo: Brett Rojo/USA Today)

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