Caitlin Clark and Iowa averaged 5.5 million viewers for Friday night’s win over South Carolina in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament semifinals, ESPN reported Saturday, citing preliminary data from Nielsen. It was the third-largest audience ever for a women’s college basketball game on ESPN.
ESPN has shown most women’s matches since acquiring the rights from CBS in 1996. The only games that drew more viewers than the Iowa-South Carolina matchup were two tournament finals in the early 2000s, when Diana Taurasi and a juggernaut Connecticut team won three straight championships.
On Friday night, Clark showed off his shooting and other offensive skills for Iowa, while losing against a heavily favored South Carolina team to win its second straight championship. The game delivered more than those high expectations as Clark scored 41 points — his second straight 40-point game — and made several late pushes by the Iowa Gamecocks, showing their depth even in the loss.
A strong audience for Iowa-South Carolina and another tight semifinal game between Louisiana State and Virginia Tech averaged 3.4 million viewers, adding to an already highly-watched matchup. Before the Friday night games, The number of visitors has already increased by 42 percent Compared to last year’s competition.
Sunday’s finale, featuring Iowa and LSU, will not be in its traditional prime-time slot, instead starting at 3 p.m. Eastern. But it will be on ABC, For the first time in decades The final broadcast was shown on the channel, which is available in more homes than cable channels such as ESPN and ESPN2.
While ESPN celebrates the increased interest in the tournament, it could cost the company or another broadcaster more money in the future. ESPN’s rights to show the tournament and 28 NCAA title events expire next year. A report commissioned by the NCAA found that women’s competition could be worth at least $85 million by 2025; ESPN’s current contract only valued the NCAA tournament at $6 million.
Similar to the NCAA deal with CBS and Turner Sports for the men’s competition, there are moves within college sports to break up the women’s competition to increase its value and sell the rights separately.
Viewership for the semi-final games as measured by Nielsen has not yet been finalized. ESPN released preliminary data based on the so-called Quick Nationals, a small sample of viewers that process quickly. Final audience data won’t be known until early next week. Sometimes the final ratings are significantly different from the fast nationals, usually they are not.
While it’s clear that Friday night’s matchups were widely watched and more people watched women’s college basketball, women’s professional basketball and women’s soccer, there’s one big caveat that makes it difficult to fully compare viewers to past years.
In 2020, Nielsen began incorporating what it calls out-of-home viewing into its ratings data. It’s a metric that TV networks have been pushed to include in ratings for years, as people watch television outside of their own homes in bars, airports, gyms and other places. In particular, this shift increases viewership data for sports more often than for scripted programming, as sports are televised in those public settings.
Although it depends on the specific sport, viewing outside the home can boost ratings by 5 to 10 percent. Or, to put it another way, when Connecticut beat Oklahoma in 2002, Nielsen measured out-of-home viewing as 6 million people watched the game instead of 5.7 million.
Yet, to understand the growth in popularity of women’s college basketball, one need only look at the audience for the men’s game. Spectators for all windows of men’s regional semifinals and regional finals last weekend were below Compared to last year – some of them are more than 20 percent.