Citing early data from Nielsen, ESPN said Saturday that Caitlin Clark and Iowa’s thrilling victory over South Carolina Friday night in the semifinals of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was watched by an average of 5.5 million viewers. This is the third largest crowd ever on ESPN for a college women’s basketball game, and the largest crowd ever for a semifinal.
ESPN has shown most women’s championships since 1996, when it acquired the rights from CBS. The only two games that drew larger crowds than the Iowa vs. South Carolina matchup were two tournament finals in the early 2000s featuring Diana Taurasi and a Connecticut juggernaut that won three straight championships.
On Friday night, Clarke showcased her shooting and other offensive skills for Iowa as they took on a previously undefeated South Carolina team that was the favorite to win its second straight state championship. The game provided more than those high expectations, as Clark scored 41 points—her second consecutive 40-point game—and Iowa withstood several late drives by the Gamecocks, who showed their depth even in defeat.
Strong viewership for Iowa State-South Carolina, and an average viewership of 3.4 million viewers for the other tight semifinal matchup, between Louisiana State and Virginia Tech, contribute to what was already a high-profile tournament. before Friday night games, Viewership was already 42 percent higher compared to last year’s tournament.
Sunday’s Final, featuring Iowa and LSU, will not be at its traditional primetime venue and will instead begin at 3 PM ET. But it will be on ABC, The first time in decades The final was shown on a broadcast channel, and is available in more homes than cable channels such as ESPN and ESPN2.
While ESPN celebrates the high interest in the tournament, it could also result in the company or another broadcaster having to spend more money in the future. ESPN’s rights to show the tournament, and 28 other NCAA events, expire next year. A report commissioned by the NCAA found that the women’s tournament could be worth at least $85 million in 2025; The NCAA valued the tournament at just $6 million in ESPN’s current agreement.
There have been pushes within college sports to break up the women’s championship to maximize its value and sell the rights separately, such as the NCAA’s deal with CBS and Turner Sports for the men’s championship.
Viewership for the semi-finals, as measured by Nielsen, is far from over. ESPN released early data based on the so-called Speed Nationals, which is a smaller sample of viewership processed in Speed. Final viewing data won’t be known until early next week. While the final rankings sometimes differ greatly from the speedy nationals, they usually do not.
And while it’s clear that the Friday night games are widely watched, and more people watch women’s college basketball, women’s professional basketball, and women’s soccer, there is one big caveat that makes it difficult to fully compare viewership. in past years.
In 2020, Nielsen began incorporating what it calls out-of-home viewing into its ratings data. This measurement, which television networks have pushed to include in ratings for years, takes into account people who watch TV in bars, airports, gyms, and other locations outside their home. In particular, the change boosts viewing data more for sports than for scripted programming, as sports are more likely to be shown on TV in those public spaces.
While it depends on the specific sport, out-of-home viewing tends to boost ratings anywhere from 5 to 10 percent. Or to put it another way, if Nielsen measured viewership away from home back in 2002 when Connecticut defeated Oklahoma, the game’s viewership might have been 6 million instead of 5.7 million.
However, to understand the growing popularity of women’s college basketball, one need only look at the viewership for the men’s tournament. Viewership for all windows of last weekend’s men’s regional semi-finals and regional finals decreased compared to last year – some by more than 20 percent.
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