Women’s basketball coverage and resources lag behind fan support growth

Mary Louise Kelly of NPR talks to Shantel Jennings, senior women’s basketball columnist for Athleticabout the March madness and the women’s game.


Officially it’s March Madness. The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments continue. Yesterday the first round began for men, today for women. And now for the data point: Last year, the women’s final game was the most watched in nearly two decades. The total number of viewers of the women’s tournament increased by 16% compared to last year. So there’s a surge of attention from the fans, less of a surge when it comes to media coverage and player resources. Now Shantel Jennings is joining me. She is a senior writer on women’s basketball at The Athletic. Hello.

CHANTEL JENNINGS: Hi Mary Louise. Thank you for inviting me.

KELLY: Glad you’re with us. Do you agree with what I just said, that it seems that the fans are ready for this, that there is a growing interest in women’s college basketball?

JENNINGS: Absolutely. I think if you look at the numbers, this is clearly confirmed. I live part of my professional life on Twitter. Just what happened there, the NIL deals, the name, image and image deals that have happened to female basketball players over the past two years, all speak to the growing popularity of the sport.

KELLY: NIL are college athletes who can now make money from their name, their image, their likeness. This applies to student sports. Why has this affected women’s basketball?

JENNINGS: Speaking to many experts, you know, most importantly, women, especially college-age women, are really good at social media. They have a talent for TikTok. They have skills for Instagram. And so they were able to use it at a time when so many marketing schemes and company plans have gone to social media. And that’s where a lot of college-age women are.

KELLY: Are there other factors here, other reasons why people might pay more attention to the women’s game?

JENNINGS: There’s a saying I’ve always said, inspired by a very famous movie: if you stream it, people will watch it. We have seen more and more broadcast games of the women’s tournament, the women’s season in general. They were posted on higher networks, mainly ESPN, not ESPNews or ESPN2. In fact, this will be the first time in almost 20 years that a national championship game will be broadcast on ABC or the main network instead of cable. And it matters a lot, because that’s about 40 million more households in the US. And so you just see more and more of these games being put into a place where people can consume them.

KELLY: What about resources? I remember that scandal a couple of years ago when images that went viral on social media showed a huge difference in the size of the gym that athletes could use during the March Madness. The men had a large, fully stocked gym. And the woman was so… he was puny, I think it’s fair to say.

JENNINGS: Mary Louise, I think frail is a very good way to express what the NCAA has done.

KELLY: What word would you use?

JENNINGS: I think they were, or maybe they didn’t exist. They had — I think it was one stack of dumbbells, like, four different weights. And what I liked the most was that there were about 11 yoga mats, which is not enough even for a full team. For example, they didn’t even provide enough yoga mats for everyone on the team to do yoga if they wanted to. However, the main thing that we really need to talk about is some kind of broadcast rights. And they will appear again at the women’s tournament. The main difference here is that the men’s tournament has sold on its own for the last, you know, few decades, while the NCAA women’s tournament has been packed with 28 other championships since it was sold to ESPN two decades ago.

So women really couldn’t capitalize on that success, the rising popularity that we just talked about, because it was tied to track and field championships, gymnastics championships, softball championships, and baseball championships. There was a Kaplan report released after the gym scandal that suggested that the women’s tournament alone would cost somewhere between $81 million and $112 million in television rights. His current deal with ESPN and 28 other championships is only $34 million a year.

KELLY: Chantal Jennings covers women’s basketball for The Athletic. Thank you.

JENNINGS: Thank you, Mary Louise.

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