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NCAA-ESPN Deal Shows Women’s College Basketball Not Yet Ready to Stand on Own

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NCAA-ESPN Deal Shows Women’s College Basketball Not Yet Ready to Stand on Own

The NCAA recently inked a new eight-year $920 million media rights agreement with ESPN. The deal gives the cable network the broadcast rights to 40 NCAA Championship events –including the Division I women’s basketball tournament– through 2032.

The $115 million annual payout represents a ~3x increase over the expiring pact.

But various media pundits have suggested the organization left money on the table by including the women’s basketball (WBB) tournament within the broader Championship bundle.

That seems unlikely.

The NCAA might have been able to command a bit more money for the crown jewel asset had it been sold separately. The WBB tournament reportedly received a ~$65 million implied valuation in the deal.

But in aggregate, it’s doubtful the NCAA could have generated any more revenue for the collective of long-tail rights.

“Selling all of these properties together, spearheaded by WBB, created a much better outcome for the entirety of NCAA’s constituency, both in terms of revenue and reach, than a sum-of-the-parts approach [would have],” industry observer Yannick Ramcke said.

The OFFTHEFIELDBUSINESS.de founder explained the universe of buyers for tier two and tier three volume content has grown increasingly limited with rights fees continuing to climb and the pay TV universe dwindling.

“Who besides ESPN needs, or can at least somewhat leverage, the enormous programming tonnage that the NCAA is providing and seeks distribution/eyeballs for,” Ramcke asked. “Nobody.”


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The women’s college basketball game has clearly grown in popularity. Last year’s title tilt between LSU and Iowa was the most watched of all-time. Some observers have suggested it was the sport’s Bird-Magic moment

So, on the surface, the idea of breaking out the rights and selling them separately from the balance of the Championship event portfolio (like the NCAA does with the men’s tournament) makes sense. In theory, doing so would enable the organization to maximize the value of the women’s tournament.

“Everybody wants to go segmented because they think this [content] is worth so much if it's broken out,” media consultant Patrick Crakes said. But “we’ve learned that’s wrong.”

Rights often deliver more total value when pooled together (think: leverage with advertisers and distributors). 

And in this case, WBB “advocates [also] over-estimated the tournament’s value,” Crakes added.

One power five athletic director agreed saying negotiations showed WBB is not yet prepared to stand on its own, that an ala carte offer would not command enough additional revenue to offset the value of the linear and digital exposure some of the other championships would lose out on if it were sold separately.

The NCAA has an obligation to make decisions in the best interests of all its student-athletes and to be building up all its championship events.

The women’s basketball tournament is clearly among the more valuable assets in the Championship portfolio. But ESPN, the most logical broadcast partner for the NCAA, wanted all 40 championships. 

Remember, programming holes in 2Q & 3Q are among the reasons why they acquired NCAA championship rights to begin with. And their content needs have only increased with the addition of a streaming service.

“So, the question becomes if you start busting some of this stuff out, what happens to the rest,” Crakes said.

It’s hard to come up with a media company that has the reach, available programming windows, and desire to pay more than ESPN for volume sports programming.

“The truth of the matter is some content is much more valuable inside one company’s portfolio than inside another’s,” Crakes said. 

“For most market contenders, tentpole events have value in an OTT-first marketplace, not volume,” Ramcke added. “And rarely do OTT-first platforms bet on pure-sports propositions anyway, which limits total live sports programming demand.”

But even if there were another viable broadcast partner willing to outbid ESPN for the rights, one could argue the NCAA still made the right decision for the long-term growth of these properties. 

“The reason why these college sports properties have [as much value as they do], including the women’s tournament, is because ESPN has [invested in building] them up over a decade,” Crakes said. 

The network treats NCAA Championship events as core content. It’s not certain another outlet would.

Expect that to continue for the next eight years. 800 of the 2,300 programming hours will air on linear television, and WBB, softball, baseball, women’s volleyball, women’s gymnastics, and FCS football will all get exposure on ABC as part of this deal. 

And now all the NCAA’s championships rights, including the men’s basketball tournament (currently controlled by Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery), will expire in 2032. That timing will give the organization optionality during its next round of negotiations.

“The men’s tournament can have some of the [NCAA Championship] content as a bundle and the women’s tournament can have some of it as a bundle,” Crakes said. “Or [the NCAA] can sell [all of the rights] as one big package.”

Our bet would be the latter as it would allow the organization to best leverage the entirety of the rights portfolio. A buyer is not getting the men’s tournament without overpaying for the women’s basketball tournament and the rest of the NCAA championships too.

Correction: Previous editions of this story mistakenly stated the NCAA would receive an additional $28 million/year to spend on production and marketing. No additional money will flow from ESPN to the NCAA beyond the $115 million/year.

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