What softball and strong basketball ratings could mean for women’s sports on TV

Another season, another batch of strong viewership for the women’s college softball tournament and world series.

That should come as no surprise: Women’s sports have grown in popularity across many metrics — television audience, attendance, funding, participation, opportunity — amid their decades-long quest for more equitable treatment since Act IX became law in 1972.

What the televised softball numbers, and persistently strong women’s basketball metrics, mean is that the NCAA could split those sports into its own media rights deals — or bundle them with their male counterparts — for greater financial value when contracts expire in two years.

And in theory, more broadcast rights money should mean more support for those shows’ tournaments. But before delving into the future of television rights, let’s look closely at the softball results from last week.

Powerhouse Oklahoma’s two-game championship series swept the unranked Texas in a Big 12 issue, averaging 1.6 million primetime viewers on ESPN and ESPN2 last week. That’s a healthy number, to be sure, and it’s only modestly down from the record 1.85 million set in 2021 for the Sooners’ three-game win over Florida State.

Oklahoma won the opening game 16-1 Wednesday night in front of an audience of 1.41 million on ESPN — a game that was broadcast against Game 3 of the NBA Finals (11.52 million, ABC). The network said softball viewers peaked at 1.8 million.

Thursday’s game two of the softball tournament — the 10-5 Sooners’ win — averaged 1.74 million with a peak viewership of 2.1 million on ESPN2. There was no NBA competition that night, but some people (including me) were at the premiere of the new Jurassic World (I generously gave it a grade of C), and about 20 million people tuned in to the January 6 rebellion congressional hearing that aired On several broadcast and cable channels.

That night was also Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals between the Lightning and Rangers which averaged 2.48 million viewers on ESPN (which is why softball crashed into ESPN2 that night).

So seeing the softball increase slightly in Game 2, in the face of tough competition for eyeballs on other channels, is a net positive. Especially because these weren’t cross-play games, and usually tight competitions and long series lead to better viewership. The Sooners Championship 2021 saw the Seminoles win the opening match, and play closer matches, to keep the series convincing.

However, why has there been a drop in viewership compared to 2021? Maybe sooner tired of playing? This last tournament was the program’s sixth overall in 15 World Championship appearances. Oklahoma has won four of the past six softball titles. Texans, who had not been in the tournament since 2013 and are still chasing their first softball tournament, were Cinderella’s storyline of the tournament but ultimately it wasn’t a game for Oklahoma.

“It’s hard to keep up with a record pace. The absences of Florida State and James Madison (the last one was a surprising surprise story in 2021) were also painful. Then you end up with an absolutely lopsided final between Oklahoma and Texas,” said John Lewis, founder of Sports Media Watch, a site that tracks Live sports viewers since 2006, there’s probably been an inevitable element in Oklahoma as well, which we’ve seen with the dominant teams in other sports.

Game 2 last week also boasted a championship game record of 12,257 people at the USA Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The Championship Series wasn’t the first post-season meeting of the Sooners and Longhorns. Oklahoma defeated Texas 7-2 on June 4 in the inaugural College Girls World series broadcast on ABC, per ESPN (which handles advertising and production for its sister network). That match averaged 1.25 million viewers for the mid-afternoon contest on Saturday.

This year’s full 16-game softball tournament averaged 1 million viewers for ESPN, down from last season’s record average of 1.2 million viewers. There was no tournament in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Three years ago, the tournament averaged 1.05 million viewers.

Prior to the 2021 audience mark, the old college softball viewing record was in 2015, with an average of 1.19 million viewers. Last year, 10 out of 17 matches in the tournament averaged at least 1 million viewers.

It should be noted that the Nielsen TV ratings tracker didn’t include out-of-home viewership (OOH) until summer 2020, meaning older events didn’t have that audience baked into their totals — potentially more than 10 percent of the total. OOH is seen in places like bars, restaurants, hotels, and the homes of others.

In today’s television scene, properties such as the women’s college basketball tournament and the softball tournament have shown a strong viewership. However, the value of their broadcasting rights was determined in an entirely different era. In an age of declining television use and wire cutting, such modest ripples in viewing are secondary to the fact that live sports are more resistant to eyeball regression than most programs—meaning there is value that has yet to unlock in properties like softball.

The softball tournament is part of a 14-year, $500 million deal that ESPN signed with the NCAA in December 2011 to acquire broadcast rights to 24 collegiate sports tournaments through 2024. That was before the broadcast, before the rope was cut, and at the start of social media — And the athletes did not have zero rights of additional value.

With networks having an insatiable thirst for live sports and broadcast rights, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of the esports in that deal getting singles or small deals in the next round of rights.

This can include women’s basketball and softball. Alternatively, as these sports add eyeball heft to the broader package of sports, the NCAA may choose to keep them aggregated in an effort to boost overall financial value.

“Despite decades of critics’ comments to the contrary, there is enough audience and appetite for women’s sports,” said Mary Jo Keane, director emeritus of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota. Advertisers take notice, and corporate executives notice. They see that there is not only an audience, but a strong desire to broadcast women’s sports. Every time they do, they are rewarded beyond measure.”

While anything can happen, Kane said she wouldn’t be surprised if the next round of NCAA television deals included separate or combined deals for the most popular women’s sports like softball and basketball.

“All the cards are on the table and the NCAA has the opportunity, some leverage, and the athletes are doing it too with the NIL,” she said. “Why not try to accumulate profits, make the most profits, and benefit yourself as best you can? Sports is always a growing industry and women’s sports has proven that is the case as well.”

One media rights expert familiar with NCAA deals said it makes sense to start selling sports leagues like women’s basketball and softball alone or with the men’s leagues in those sports.

Ed Desser of Desser Media Inc. “The NCAA recommended doing so in our report on gender equality in the media last August,” a former NBA executive who has negotiated television rights deals for teams across several major leagues and organizations. “We haven’t touched on just assembling women’s basketball and softball, but we’d recommend at least selling a women’s basketball event on its own, and it’s possible that others will as well.”

Desser was hired by Kaplan Hecker & Fink to complete the NCAA Gender Equality Review of Women’s Basketball that was published last August. Results showed that by 2025 women’s collars could be worth more than $100 million a season, and the NCAA recommended that multiple sports leagues be launched for future rights negotiations.

The report stated: “Both the World College and Women’s Softball Championships reach large audiences in the spring/summer and will be a compelling combination, especially for a partner who is invested in baseball or has a hiatus in live sports programming at that time of year.”

An industry insider said there are dangers of sports such as softball and women’s basketball being disassembled or packed into smaller packages.

said Patrick Krakis, media industry analyst and former Fox Sports executive.

“What happens to other sports when you split them into multiple groups as well? Also, don’t expect any of these characteristics to get the same viewership on different platforms and networks as they do now. What you might end up doing in pursuit of baseball and softball rights fees is Blow up the bigger package that you built many of. I will be very careful.”

I left a message for the NCAA.

One thing is for sure: ESPN, or whoever ends up buying the rights, will definitely pay more than $500 million for those rights. And it’s an open question about whether either side would be interested in a 14-year deal again.

On the baseball side, the 64 senior/regional regional teams are completing and the eight-team College World Series starts Friday. The teams vying for the championship are Arkansas, Auburn, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Stanford, Texas and Texas A&M in a 10-day double elimination tournament. The games will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2.

The tournament begins with Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma at 2pm ET on Friday followed by Texas vs. Notre Dame at 7pm both on ESPN. The finals are scheduled to take place from 25 to 27 June.

(Photo: Brett Rojo/USA Today)

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