Alex Simon Bay Area News Group
SAN FRANCISCO — It’s undoubtedly been a busy time for Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff as he prepares for the conference’s next media rights deal.
But while the focus is mostly on football and some men’s basketball, Klyavkov said there is another varsity sport that is a key point in initial discussions.
“When we talk to all the potential dealers, they want to talk about women’s basketball,” Klyavkov said Tuesday at Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Media Day.
Kliavkoff also wanted to talk about the sport. And it’s not just because the Pac-12 is one of the best conferences in women’s basketball in the country, with a 2021 Stanford National Championship and seven Final Fours from five different schools – three by Stanford (2017, 2021 and 2022) and one game each by Arizona (2021 runner-up), Oregon (2020), Oregon and Washington (both in 2016).
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That’s because women’s basketball is also about to become a revenue sport.
“I think women’s basketball is our fastest growing television sport,” Krikovkov said. “Ratings are growing faster than any other sport. And I think it’s one of those sports that has traditionally been underrated in terms of media rights. I think it presents a great opportunity.”
This undervaluation is common for would-be TV distributors. The 2021 gender equality review revealed that the NCAA’s package deal with ESPN that includes championships in all sports except men’s basketball and FBS soccer — $34 million a year for all 29 championship games — vastly undervalues some sports, Especially women’s basketball.
In the report, it was estimated that women’s basketball alone could earn “$8.1 to $112 million annually” starting in 2025.
While that doesn’t compete with the $1.1 billion the NCAA takes from Turner each year for the men’s tournament or the $470 million ESPN pays for the CFP, the report estimates the NCAA leaves tens of millions of dollars a year, and that number is likely to continue increase.
Looking at the ratings shows why. Last season’s national championship game between South Carolina and the University of Connecticut drew 4.85 million viewers on ESPN, making it the most-watched championship game since 2004. Stanford’s loss to Connecticut in the semifinals had 3.23 million viewers, the most-watched semifinals in a decade.
The women’s college basketball team isn’t just showing huge numbers in the playoffs to win or go home. ABC aired its first regular-season women’s college basketball game last season when UCLA met the University of Connecticut in New Jersey on December 12. The game was watched by an average of 839,000 viewers, excluding UConn star Paige Books.
Last season’s regular-season matchup between Stanford and South Carolina drew 314,000 viewers, even when it aired Tuesday, Dec. 21 at 5 p.m. on ESPN2
This season’s games, between the last two national championships, will be broadcast on ABC, like last season’s UCLA-Conn game. Could this year’s matchup between South Carolina’s Alia Boston and Stanford’s Hayley Jones, the top two potential draft picks for 2023 in the WNBA, break the 1 million viewer mark? This does seem to be possible.
“I’m excited for guys like Haley and Cam (Brinker) to have the opportunity to play at ABC,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “We love playing on the Pac-12 Network and ESPN, but ABC just gets you into more homes. We want young girls, boys, old people, women, whoever they are, to see these great players and great Team. It’s absolutely thrilling.”
It will be the first of two games on ABC this year, the other being Stanford’s Dec. 18 home game against Tennessee. On other ESPN networks, though, the conference has just three games during the regular season and conference championship game, and there won’t be any on the conference’s other broadcast partner, Fox Network.
Meanwhile, the men’s team will play a total of 45 games on the ESPN network (including three Pac-12 tournaments, one of which is a championship game), plus one game on ABC, 22 on Fox Network, and even 3 conference broadcasts on CBS .
The difference between the men’s and women’s basketball broadcast rosters was carried over from the original TV rights deal, which had two seasons remaining. But given the trends in women’s basketball, the next deal will definitely be different.
While much of the outside discussion about new media copyright agreements revolves around football and men’s basketball, make no mistake: women’s basketball rights are also an important financial factor.
It’s part of a trend that spans all levels of women’s basketball. On a professional level, the WNBA has seen a 22 percent increase in viewership for ESPN games throughout the 2022 season, averaging 412,000 viewers across ESPN’s 49 games. The playoffs saw a similar 22% increase, with an average of 456,000 viewers.
ESPN broadcasts the FIBA World Cup from Australia in late September, with most games on ESPN+, but six games on TV, including the championship game between the U.S. and China at 11 p.m. PT Airing on ESPN. Even at that time, the broadcast of the game was watched by an average of 446,000 viewers.
Some Pac-12 coaches haven’t forgotten about this growth.
“Our game is growing. It’s really important,” Arizona coach Aditya Barnes said. “You should invest in women’s basketball. It allows you to make money. I think that’s important.”
VanDerveer agreed, adding that the Pac-12 network — much maligned in football — is a major positive for women’s basketball.
“Pac-12 Networks has put Pac-12 women’s basketball on the map,” VanDerveer said. “We’ve always been fine, but now people know.”
TV distributors know this, too, and they’ll soon have the opportunity to spend their money where women’s basketball has high ratings. The NCAA’s deal with ESPN for all of its national championships except soccer and men’s basketball expires after 2024, and women’s basketball is now expected to be negotiated separately.
On a professional level, the WNBA reportedly brings in $250-35 million per season for its TV rights, a deal that expires after the 2025 season. With ratings similar to or better than Major League Soccer — which just signed a deal with Apple TV to stream all of its games exclusively on the streaming platform for $250 million per season — the WNBA is likely Increase your annual TV show copyright revenue tenfold.
With streaming services getting involved, this appears to be a space the Pac-12 is poised to take advantage of. Amazon is doing well in Thursday night’s NFL game and Apple TV is pushing MLB and MLS games, so the storied streaming service option seems to be coming to fruition at the right time in the Pac-12.
Women’s basketball is a sizable part of that, even though USC and UCLA left the Big Ten.
“We’ve been the best conference in the country for the past five years, and frankly I don’t think that’s going to change,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. “I wouldn’t say there’s pressure, but I think it’s important It’s us going to give it our all and we did have another great season as a conference.”
While coaches and teams want to maintain that success on the court, success off the court will ultimately fall to Klyavkov. The 18-month-only commissioner, who first came to the attention of women’s basketball for the wrong reasons, responded to a question about the sport: “We know where our bread goes. We’re focused on revenue sports and winning in football and men’s basketball.”
but now? It’s clear for TV distributors that women’s basketball is a sport that will provide butter for the conference.
“They wanted to talk about how to highlight our women’s basketball program,” Klyavkov said. “They understand the quality of our show, and more importantly, they understand the ratings the show will bring them.
“It’s an important part of driving our immediate value, and I think we’ll be very proud when we close the deal.”
Or, as Barnes puts it: “They’d better take advantage of it because we’re making a big splash.”