Link to home page
Link to home

News from the open internet


March Madness just proved the power and scale of women’s sports. Advertisers are watching.

Female hand holding streaming remote with a basketball spinning on top of it.

Robyn Phelps / Getty / The Current

Sunday’s women’s college basketball national championship blew viewership records out of the water, with 18.9 million people tuning in on ABC and ESPN. At its peak, 24.1 million viewers watched South Carolina beat Iowa and star point guard Caitlin Clark to win its second title in three years.

The huge ratings number is up 89% from last year’s title game and 285% from 2022, cementing the match-up as the most-watched sporting event across all networks since Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, outside of the NFL and the Olympics. Still, these figures prove that women’s basketball can go toe-to-toe with football, with only 15 NFL games last year attracting more viewers than the women’s title game. And for the first time ever, the women’s title game outdrew the men.

Those statistics stack up on top of the mountain of evidence that women’s sports are surging, as sports fans and advertisers are realizing their emerging power. Disney’s ad revenue for the women’s basketball tournament doubled from last year, with ad space for the national championship and Final Four sold out.

Ampersand, a data-driven TV advertising sales and tech company, saw a 1,000% increase in ad revenue for the women’s basketball tournament from two years ago, according to the company’s Director of Sports Partnerships Dave Solomon. Solomon notes demand for women’s basketball was near zero in 2022.

“We've seen this huge wave,” Solomon tells The Current. “Last week for me was insane. Here within the walls of Ampersand, the amount of brands that were calling us trying to get in to these Final Four games and the Finals game was just something that I've never seen before. I really haven't seen it really in any other sport. Again, [it’s] that cultural moment.”

Overall, women’s elite sports are projected to generate more than $1 billion ($1.28 billion) in global revenue this year for the first time ever, according to Deloitte, a staggering 300% increase from three years ago. The surge doesn’t stop there, though.

GroupM has committed to double its yearly advertising investment in women’s sports, with the global media buying agency launching an upfront marketplace that brands like Unilever, Adidas, Ally, Coinbase, Discover, Google, Mars, Nationwide and Universal Pictures have joined.

So, what’s behind this explosion? It’s a combination of stars like Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese capturing America’s attention as bona fide marketable stars, major sports media giving March Madness more coverage, more access to games, and networks/advertisers leveraging live sports as arguably the last great unifier of people in the fragmented world we live in.

“We’re in full demand and everybody else around the country wants to see women’s basketball,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said after she won her third title as a coach. Staley also noted that the increased access to be able to watch more games, either through traditional TV or streaming, has been key to growing the game. “The decision-makers are making the right decision. I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”

“When I think about women’s basketball going forward, obviously it’s just going to continue to grow, whether it’s at the WNBA level, whether it’s at the college level,” Clark, the all-time leading scorer in Division 1 (men or women) said after losing to Staley’s Gamecocks. “Everybody sees it. Everybody knows. Everybody sees the viewership numbers. When you’re given an opportunity, women’s sports just kind of thrives.”

Spring boarding to the WNBA

Clark is expected to be selected as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft by the Indiana Fever on April 15. Her star power — featured in major campaigns from State Farm, Nike and Gatorade — will be a boon for the WNBA as it negotiates a new media rights deal to replace one that will expire in 2025. The league saw viewership records of its own, posting its most-watched regular season in 21 years as ratings went up 21% last season.

Days after the league extended a deal to stream games on Amazon Prime Video, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert told CNBC Monday that she is hoping to at least double the league’s rights revenue. The WNBA makes around $60 million a year, according to Front Office Sports, as Disney, Paramount and Scripps Networks’ Ion also air games on traditional TV and streaming, meaning the league is pushing for well over $100 million a year.

It’s easy to compare the WNBA and NBA side-by-side, but it’s also easy to forget the NBA had a 50-year head start founding the league. Zooming out shows the WNBA, which started in 1996, is still establishing the foundation for its future.

“We’re setting this league up not for the next three to five years with this media rights deal, but for the next 30,” Englebert said.

The NBA wasn’t always the NBA

Another detail lost in the high-flying nature of the NBA’s business dealings today – the NBA finals were on tape delay until 1982. Behind legendary commissioner David Stern, the league placed a bigger emphasis on stars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and two years later Michael Jordan was drafted. The rest is history.

Now, the WNBA is trying to take those lessons into its next era.

“If you look at the history of men’s sports, do we have our Bird-Magic moment like the NBA had when they were on tape delay,” Englebert said. “It is media rights that funds a lot of what happens in men’s sports, as well as corporate partnerships. We’ve been doing great in corporate partnerships. [We’ve] doubled our corporate partnerships revenue over the last three years.”

Rob Brett, VP of Digital Sales at media agency Playfly Sports, along with Mark Francis, sports business professor at the University of Oregon, both pointed to the NBA’s progression from tape delay to cultural giant as a comparable path for the WNBA. Francis used the growing star power of women’s basketball in the NCAA and WNBA as recent examples for his sports brand management class.

Creating storylines and stars

Beyond just showing the games and covering the sport, broadcasters play an important role in making the players into stars. Weaving in the storylines and narratives that make people care and fall in love with the game is crucial to the growth of the sport and helps marketers connect with potential consumers. In 2022, 15% of sports media coverage went to women’s sports, triple what it was in 2018, according to a study done by sports marketing agency Wasserman. The study projects that number may go up to 20% by next year.

With ESPN being the main rights holder for women’s basketball, on top of being the number one sports network, they are finally leveraging that power to make the product more popular. The network only started broadcasting every March Madness game nationally in 2021.

“It's amazing to me how American media can turn a person into a superstar overnight,” Francis tells The Current. “It's awesome. And [the media’s] certainly done that, they did that with [Caitlin Clark] after last year's tournament.”

Sports media personality Jemele Hill, who spent 12 years at ESPN, said on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz that it’s up to several parties to keep this upward growth going.

“We have reached these inflection points many times before in this game,” Hill said. “And what's usually happened is that the gatekeepers have decided not to have consistent investments in the game, and that's kept it from propelling forward. And so more than anything, I'm hoping that this is the moment where the media, the brands, the fans, everybody aligns to continue to support this game and not just one or two players and understanding overall that this is just a wonderful product to be attached to.”

On the brand side, Ally Financial poured in twice the amount of money into advertising during the women’s tournament compared to the men’s. Coca-Cola increased its media spend on the women’s tournament, as did AT&T, which Fast Company reports went up 117% year-over-year.

Thinking about how this massive string of success plays into the future, Playfly Sports’ Brett paraphrased the play Hamilton by telling The Current “it's not a moment, it's a movement.”

UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who has won 11 titles, the most of any college basketball coach, took the alliteration one step further.

“It's a moment, but it's more than a moment,” Auriemma said after his team lost to Clark and Iowa in the Final Four. “Sometimes moments become minutes, and minutes become hours, and hours become days. And the next thing you know it becomes part of the national pastime.”