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Dawn Staley: Women’s NCAA Tournament deserves its own TV deal

(Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch)

The NCAA women’s basketball tournament deserves its own TV deal, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said ahead of her team’s Sweet 16 game.

As it stands, the tournament is lumped in with 28 other sports’ NCAA tournaments as part of a deal with ESPN worth $34 million. Yet women’s March Madness is worth between $81 million and $112 million per year on its own, independent media expert Ed Desser has estimated.

The current media rights contract with ESPN expires in 2024. As the NCAA negotiates its next media rights package, women’s basketball could stand on its own, as men’s basketball and football do.

“It should happen,” Staley said. “We’re at that place where we’re in high demand. I do believe women’s basketball can stand on its own and be a huge revenue-producing sport that could do, to a certain extent, what men’s basketball has done for all those other sports, all those other Olympic sports and women’s basketball. I do believe we’re at that place now.

“I do believe we were probably at a place years ago, but until we’re able to have the decision makers give us that opportunity… It’s slowly building up to that because there’s proof in the numbers.”

The 2023 edition of the women’s tournament already is setting records. The second round saw a 30% increase in viewership, with an average of 615,000 viewers, and the first round saw a 28% increase, with an average of 391,000.

The second-round game between No. 2 seed Iowa and No. 10 seed Georgia attracted 1.5 million viewers on ABC, the high-water mark for the early-round games across ESPN networks and ABC.

South Carolina’s 64-49 win against UConn in the NCAA tournament final last April averaged 4.85 million viewers across broadcast and streaming platforms, including 4.45 million viewers on ESPN. That game was the most-watched college basketball game on ESPN since 2008.

“For people to tune in and want to watch us, it means that our game is growing,” Staley said. “There’s an opportunity for our game to grow. I’m a Black coach, and I’ve got a majority, predominantly Black team, and for the viewers to tune into that, it means that we’re opening doors that were closed for a program like us.”

In 2023, the national championship game will air on ABC at 3 p.m. ET Sunday, April 2, from the American Airlines Center in Dallas. ESPN will broadcast the Final Four contests, set for 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday, March 31.