If you are a women’s college basketball fan, the following sentence is news you have been wanting for some time: The women’s title game is moving to ABC.
The 2023 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Game will air on ABC, The Athletic has learned, on Sunday, April 2, at 3 pm ET from American Airlines Center in Dallas. The Final Four semifinal matchups will air on ESPN at 7 pm and 9:30 pm ET on March 31. ESPN says it is committed to placing the title game on ABC in 2023 and 2024.
“We’re committed to 2023 and 2024, which are the only two tournaments we have left under contract with the NCAA,” said ESPN president of programming and original content Burke Magnus, who has been pushing for this change. “Under the presumption, and we certainly hope that’s the case that we do renew and extend a deal that includes the women’s tournament, we would continue to do this as a matter of course.”
The Women’s Final Four did have network coverage on CBS in the 1980s and early 1990s (many of the semifinals games were tape-delayed) before CBS said it would decline to show the Women’s Final Four after 1995. In 1996, ESPN took over the property as part of a then-seven-year, $19 million deal. That deal increased the number of tournament games aired nationally — and ESPN has unquestionably helped grow the game since then. (ESPN paid $500 million in 2011 for a 14-year deal to air the women’s tournament, College World Series and 22 other championships.)
This year’s title game (up against the Grammy Awards) between South Carolina and UConn on ESPN drew 4.85 million viewers — the most-viewed women’s title game in nearly two decades. The game peaked at 5.91 million viewers. The 2022 semifinals averaged 2.7 million viewers, up 21 percent year-over-year, and was the most-viewed semifinal round in a decade. (To show the power of this women’s tournament property: This year’s Stanley Cup Final averaged 4.6 million viewers on ABC).
The 2023 women’s basketball tournament will be unique in that the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds which will be played using a two-host format with eight teams competing in Greenville, SC, and eight teams playing in Seattle. (The championship will follow this two-site regional format through 2027.) That should increase in-arena attendance and also makes it easier for television schedulers. ESPN first aired the tournament on ABC in 2021, with two first-round matchups and four Sweet 16 games available on the broadcast network.
Magnus said that the 2020 women’s basketball tournament would have been the first year that every game of the tournament had a national window, but the pandemic changed those plans as the tournament was canceled. He said ESPN wants to continue to push high-profile women’s championships such as softball, volleyball, gymnastics and lacrosse to get more prominent television windows. The women’s basketball tournament is the furthest ahead as far as viewership proof of concept given its big numbers.
“Prime time on Sunday is a big night of entertainment for the broadcast network, and they have made commitments, in this case to ‘American Idol,’ that go out for many, many years,” Magnus said. “We started the process a couple of years ago to try and clear ABC one way or the other. That’s what got us focused on the afternoon. It became a collaborative conversation with the NCAA. Obviously, they’re going to still play their semifinals on Friday night in prime time, but that’s certainly enough rest if they come back and play late afternoon on Sunday.”
Magnus said ESPN officials have looked into the prospect of getting the title game on ABC prime time, and he would not rule that out down the road.
“The planets have to align a little bit there,” Magnus said. “Right now, Sunday is one of ABC’s best nights as it has been for some time with ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘American Idol’ and so forth. We’re getting the best of both worlds here, honestly, by having a championship in the late afternoon, leading into their news coverage and then their prime-time lineup on Sunday night. It’s certainly something that we want to consider at some point in the future, but right now we’re happy to get this accomplished and go from there.”
(Picture: Kirby Lee/USA Today)