Viewers chose women’s basketball over men’s

By David Mullen

After the UConn Huskies defeated the Purdue Boilermakers 75-60 in the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship game on April 8 in Glendale, Ariz., there was no time for fanfare except from the fans in Storrs, Conn. celebrating their second consecutive NCAA title.  

The once fail-safe sport of NCAA men’s basketball is facing unforeseen challenges. Teams are seeing young players jumping to the NBA after one year of college, meaning that the NCAA has had no media darling recently to help promote the sport. 

A player with the marketing appeal of Iowa women’s basketball superstar Caitlin Clark, who has helped raise the profile of NCAA women’s basketball, does not exist in the men’s game.

Iowa star guard Caitlin Clark is heading to the WNBA.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Also, the NCAA Champion Huskies are a small market team lacking the appeal of a legacy program. As media website “Awful Announcing” pointed out, “The UConn Huskies just won their sixth national championship in 25 years and yet most casual sports fans would be hard pressed to have any strong feelings about the program one way or another.

“Connecticut isn’t a blue blood like Duke, Kentucky or Kansas. They aren’t a factory of NBA talent. While [former UConn head coach] Jim Calhoun is indeed a legend and [current coach] Dan Hurley could be on his way there, they don’t have a singular force that has defined a program like Bobby Knight or Coach K [Duke’s former head coach Mike Krzyzewski].” 

The website pointed out that UConn’s last two championship victories are the least watched in NCAA Tournament history.

In recently released preliminary TV ratings, the NCAA Women’s Championship game on April 7 on ABC/ESPN had an estimated four million more viewers (18.87 million overall) than the NCAA Men’s Championship game on Turner Networks (TNT/TBS) the following day (14.82 million viewers).

While the NCAA Women’s Final between Clark’s Iowa and undefeated South Carolina was “must-see-TV,” the recent ratings surge must be kept in perspective. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the short-term rating reverse “won’t be reflected in the money each side earned for TV rights: $6.5 million for the women’s tournament and $873 million for the men’s. 

“The wide discrepancy raises the question of whether college athletics officials have failed to capitalize on a surge in popularity in the women’s game. A new deal that goes into effect next season will allocate some $65 million a year for the women’s game, a substantial jump but still a fraction of the men’s haul.” 

Thanks to the 2021 court ruling approving NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) dollars that have eluded college athletes for decades, Clark had numerous endorsement deals in college including with State Farm, Nike and Gatorade. She was featured in TV ads throughout the tournament. Men’s college basketball lacked a marketing star like Clark. Next season, NCAA women’s basketball TV ratings are bound to suffer without the immensely popular Clark.

Despite the current hiccup in the popularity of NCAA men’s basketball with the American public, NCAA SVP of Basketball Dave Gavitt is optimistic. “It’s so exciting and fulfilling to know that both events are thriving and working well together,” Gavitt told Sports Business Journal. “For college basketball fans, it’s just an amazing month, right? There are some days that overlap, some windows that overlap, especially on weekends, but, generally, almost every day of the month of March and early April you’ve got incredible college basketball men’s or women’s going on. It’s great for fans, great for our schools and we have great partners. CBS [the home of early NCAA March Madness broadcasts], Turner and ESPN are incredible partners for both championships.

 “The change has been an improvement year-over-year and over that decade the events have gotten bigger,” Gavitt said. “They’ve gotten better in terms of student athlete experience and the fan experience. [I’m] pleased with that. Never resting on those laurels. We’ve got to keep making them better and better, but I like the trajectory and progress we’ve made.”

The NBA has modified rules for player eligibility throughout the years. While different rules apply to international players, NCAA men’s basketball players can enter the NBA Draft if they are “at least 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft and must be at least one year removed from the graduation of his high school class.” Most NBA prospects opt for one year of college before turning pro, a practice commonly called “one and done.” 

WNBA rules state that “players be at least 22 years old, have completed their college eligibility, have graduated from a four-year college or be four years removed from high school” in order to play in the league. Staying in college can be a financial setback for women players, but a marketing boon for NCAA women’s basketball who had years to turn Clark’s talents into ratings gold.

“With the continued turnover in college basketball, players leaving early, and lack of star power, it’s hard to imagine any program outside of a select few truly moving the needle,” “Awful Announcing” concluded. “In other words, a Caitlin Clark isn’t walking through that door. And that’s a bigger challenge facing men’s college basketball than what team may be a dynasty and what team may not.”

In the 2024-25 season, NCAA men’s basketball will be in search of their Caitlin Clark.