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NCAA secures profitable TV contract for championships, but maintains women’s basketball in bundled package

The NCAA on Thursday said it had reached an eight-year agreement with ESPN worth $115 million annually to televise 40 college sports championships each year, including the marquee Division I women’s basketball tournament that many people within college sports had hoped would be primed for even bigger returns given a wave of recent popularity.

The $920 million deal ended several years of speculation and debate about how the NCAA could capitalize on an influx of fans in women’s sports, including basketball. Powerful teams like South Carolina and UConn and star players like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Sabrina Ionescu have created higher expectations for a sport that has earned much less money than men’s college basketball and college football, counterparts that have received far higher investments from universities and media companies for nearly a century.

The NCAA’s current contract with ESPN, which was extended in 2011 and runs through the end of this season, brings in $34 million per year and includes 29 championships. A report in 2021, commissioned because of complaints about glaring differences between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, suggested that the women’s tournament could earn at least $81 million in the first year of a new deal — if it were sold on its own and not as part of a package deal — although that estimate was met with some skepticism by industry experts for its ambitions.

Ultimately, the NCAA and ESPN agreed to keep the bundle and valued the women’s basketball tournament at about $65 million per year under its portion of the agreement.

NCAA president Charlie Baker acknowledged in an interview that selling women’s basketball on its own was not viable given the realities of the market.

“We said from the beginning that we wanted the best deal that we could get for all of our championships,” Baker told The Athletic. “There was a lot of informal conversation that took place with many other potential participants in this negotiation, but the one who constantly engaged and the one I would argue was the most enthusiastic in a significant way throughout the course of this was ESPN.

“The way they handled the negotiations demonstrated that this was really important to them, that it continued to be part of their portfolio. They will be a terrific partner, I think, going forward here.”

Last year’s NCAA women’s basketball title game, won by LSU and coach Kim Mulkey, smashed viewership records. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

The new contract does not include the highly lucrative Division I men’s basketball tournament; Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery pay nearly $900 million per year to broadcast that event on CBS and the Turner cable networks in a long-term deal that runs through 2032. The new NCAA-ESPN contract also expires in 2032, which will give the NCAA more flexibility in its next media rights negotiations, Baker said. (The NCAA does not control the rights to Football Bowl Subdivision postseason games, and the College Football Playoff handles its own negotiations and controls its own revenue.)

The new contract is set to begin September 1 and includes guarantees that the national championship games in women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and women’s gymnastics will be broadcast on ABC each year.

GO DEEPER

What does the NCAA’s new media rights agreement mean for women’s college basketball?

A number of prominent women’s basketball coaches, including South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, had advocated for the NCAA to spin off the championship into a stand-alone media deal, like the arrangement used for the men’s basketball tournament.

Last season, the women’s title game aired for the first time on ABC and drew 9.9 million viewers — and featured the most people to ever watch a men’s or women’s college event on ESPN+. Overall viewership growth was up 55 percent, and the sport’s stars — players and coaches — became household names. Many in and around women’s basketball expected this deal to reflect the recent significant growth in the sport by pulling it out of a package it shares with dozens of other sports.

“It should happen,” Staley said in March. “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.

“It’s slowly building up to that because there’s proof in the numbers.”

The NCAA’s media advisers at Endeavor’s WME and IMG Sports said their financial modeling valued the women’s basketball tournament at $65 million annually, which makes up more than half of the value of the new $115 million contract. Hillary Mandel, EVP and head of Americas for media at IMG, and Karen Brodkin, EVP and co-head of WME Sports, said they began the process of preparing for the NCAA’s negotiations by assessing the opportunities in the market both for individual sports and for the 40-sport bundle.

“In the end, you’ve got to find the deal that matches your goals and objectives and not unbundle because everybody’s saying to you: ‘Unbundle! Unbundle! Hey, it’s the cool thing to do!’” Mandel said. “Let’s just not get lost in the sauce of that conversation.”

The two sides began engaging in serious negotiations in late October, Brodkin said, and completed the deal during ESPN’s exclusive negotiating window, meaning the NCAA did not take its championship bundle to the open market for a potential bidding war. She said ESPN’s financial investment, its existing infrastructure and the “overwhelming amount of production” the network has committed to on both linear and streaming platforms made it the best opportunity for the NCAA. More than 2,300 hours of championships will air on ESPN’s linear and digital platforms annually as part of the contract, and 10 sports will have their selection shows broadcast.

“Retaining exclusivity was very important to us in a world of fragmentation,” ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said.

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