Since more than 20 year, college sports fans have been able to watch NCAA championships on ESPN.
Both parties have benefited from the arrangement: The NCAA was able to ensure that its best athletes performed on a large national stage and ESPN added hundreds hours of live programming for college sports, which is anchored by men's and women's basketball and college football.
In 2011, ESPN and the NCAA renewed their partnership for 13 years at $500 million without the NCAA ever taking over the marketing rights.
The current media rights agreement for these 31 championships, which was widely criticized for being undervalued, will likely look very different in the future. This is especially true for the Division I Women's Basketball Tournament, its flagship event.
Charlie Baker, the new NCAA President who was appointed in March, acknowledged at a college sports symposium last week that "we underperform on a number of other revenue raising opportunities."
Due to the increased interest in women's Basketball, there is more pressure on NCAA to sell these tournament rights separately and not in a package with other championships. According to an analyst, this could bring in about $100 million per year. This unbundling could leave other sports on less prominent platforms.
While the women's tournament is coming to market with record-breaking attendance and TV ratings, the broadcasting industry is still in turmoil. Cable continues to lose subscribers and streaming platforms have a much smaller audience.
The NCAA has a lot to consider. Has ESPN's parent company, Disney - which is currently cutting 7,000 jobs - changed its interests? What about other networks like CBS and NBC that have fewer cable channels but have fledgling streaming services? Could streaming-only platforms like Apple, Amazon, and YouTube, who have begun selectively to acquire sports rights be players?
Chris Bevilacqua is a former NCAA media advisor who said that the NCAA was a highly political organization. There are 500,000 NCAA Student-Athletes, of which half are female, so there will be a great deal of political pressure on the NCAA to design a solution that fits with their narrative of investing in women’s sports.
This pressure is a result of a gender equity review for 2021 NCAA basketball, which was ordered after it was discovered that there were large disparities between the NCAA women's and men's basketball events during the pandemic.
Ed Desser, an analyst in sports media, estimated that the rights for the women's event could have been sold separately and would have brought between $81 million to $112 million dollars.
ESPN spent close to $50m for 31 championships in this year. This included the women's title basketball game on ABC, which attracted a record 9,9 million viewers.
Desser stated in an interview that 'the value has only increased since his estimation two years ago'. Desser cited the increased attention to the women's tourney, as well as the growing interest in professional women’s soccer and basketball leagues.
The surge in interest for women's sports is not translating into a boom in the rights fees. Before a deal this week was reached, Gianni Infantino (the president of FIFA) threatened to blackout games from the Women's World Cup this summer in several European nations. Broadcasters were reluctant to pay FIFA's price, as the games were sold for the first-time as separate properties. They were previously bundled together with the rights for the men's World Cup.
The last 30 years of women's basketball have been marked by spikes and plateaus. Connecticut's rise as a counterpoint to Tennessee coincided with the 1996 Olympics, in Atlanta, when the United States romped home to win the gold, a dominating run that helped launch the NBA-backed WNBA a few years later.
In 2012, interest had waned in college sports to the extent that the NCAA commissioned Val Ackerman to conduct a study on how to revive interest.
The murder of George Floyd during the pandemic sparked a social movement in the United States. The WNBA, women's college and basketball leaned in to that and, among other things, questioned many of the differences between the men's version of their sport, including the unfair weight rooms and coronavirus testing during the 2021 women's and men's NCAA tournaments. Recently, another issue arose: the detention in Russia of WNBA player Brittney Grinder.
This happened during a period of relaxation in NCAA rules that prohibited athletes from signing endorsement agreements. This boosted the popularity of top women's college basketball players who, unlike men, cannot enter the WNBA before they are 22 years old (in their draft-year) or have graduated from college. Players like Sabrina Ionescu and Paige Bueckers became well-known in recent years.
Ackerman, speaking of the WNBA's beginnings, said: "We said it would take a generation" to gain a foothold. "Now, my question is: can this buzz be exploited commercially?" Will there be more ticket sales at higher prices? Will sponsors pay higher fees for rights? This is the test. This is what is being sold.
It is a difficult time to launch a product.
Even though cable subscriptions are continuing to decline and streaming platforms continue building subscriber bases, cable subscribers still outnumber streaming viewers. According to Nielsen, ESPN is available in 72.5 millions homes, while ESPN+ has 25.3 million subscribers.
Any NCAA deal that is made in this uncertain environment will likely be shortened.
Mike Aresco, former CBS and ESPN executive and commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, said that media companies preferred to sign contracts lasting a decade or more so they could concentrate on building the telecasts rather than renegotiating rights.
The Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast Conferences have fallen behind the Big Ten. Its decision to renew media rights in 2017 for six years led it to a seven-year deal worth nearly $7 billion that began this football season. It's also hard to predict how the streaming and cable industries will look in five or 10 years.
Aresco stated that 'everyone is rethinking the extent to which we will go'. It's not a precise science. It's more of an art than a science.
The negotiations that will take place in the future are different than those of a professional sport league. This is despite the fact that college sports have become increasingly professional.
For example, the NFL might expect to squeeze every dollar out of a deal. Baker may insist that the NCAA must increase revenue but there will be other factors to consider.
Julie Roe Lach is the Horizon League commissioner and member of the NCAA women’s basketball oversight panel. It can't be just monetary. It's not just about which network will give the most money. It must be a real commitment to growing the game.
Julie Cromer is the athletic director of Ohio University, and co-chairperson of the committee which rewrote last year's NCAA constitution. She believes Olympic sports have a natural case for being elevated in profile. She cited her experience at Arkansas University, where the indoor track and fields team attracted several thousand fans to its home meets. This led the university to start livestreaming its events.
Lacrosse is one such sport. It is a sport that has a strong foundation in the Northeast but has struggled to expand westward over the years. ESPN's broadcast of the women's and men's championships on Memorial Day was a major boost to the event.
Joe Spallina is the women's head coach at Stonybrook University. The game between Stonybrook and top-ranked Syracuse, which was broadcast on ESPNU, took place in regular season. "That's the problem with growing sports - everyone wants to be at the top right away."