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March Madness: Students, athletic director discuss record-breaking viewership of NCAA women’s basketball

A March Madness set-up displays multiple games and different teams’ merchandise. This year’s women’s March Madness tournament, which started March 22 and concluded April 8, marked record-breaking viewership. Photo by Rebecca Lazarus.

For the first time in college basketball history, this year’s March Madness women’s championship drew more viewers than the men’s. The final, where South Carolina defeated Iowa for the title, was the most-watched women’s basketball game ever, with an average of almost 19 million viewers Sunday, April 7. This win completed South Carolina’s undefeated season of 38-0.

This championship was also the most-viewed basketball game of any level in the past five years, and it drew more viewers than any sporting event since 2019, discounting the NFL and the Olympics. Leading up to the championship, the previous two games set and broke viewership records with 12.3 million watching LSU vs. Iowa and 14.4 million watching UConn vs. Iowa, according to ESPN. This tournament was the most-watched one in NCAA women’s basketball history.

This increase in viewership has been partially attributed to “a new generation of superstar athletes,” especially Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who became the all-time leading scorer in college basketball this season. Other players driving viewership include LSU’s Angel Reese, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and USC’s JuJu Watkins. ESPN stated that “While Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes were an undeniable draw throughout the Championship, non-Iowa games saw a 76% growth year-over-year.”

Even though Serenity Jones (’26) doesn’t play basketball, she said she loves watching it. This tournament, she followed Duke‘s men’s team and the Iowa and UConn women’s teams, and she said she watched more women’s basketball games than she has in previous years.

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“I think it’s a lot more exciting than the NBA because these girls are really playing for themselves,” Jones said. “They actually have to commit to this, whereas the NBA, you just get paid to play at this point, but for college you actually have to play and try your hardest at all times because, you know, you’re trying to get assigned for a WNBA team or whatever you’re doing.” 

Rebecca Lazarus (’24) hosts a four-day March Madness viewing party each year for the first two rounds of the championship, and she said her favorite part is watching the games and connecting with people over basketball. She added that being able to recognize specific players increased her excitement around the tournament.

“The women’s basketball tournament as a whole this year was really good, and I typically don’t see much of it … but this year, I actually made sure to follow the tournament and watch it, which was really fun,” Lazarus said. “It’s cool to talk to people about women’s basketball specifically and how, ‘Oh, I know this player or that player now,’ which, usually, I’ve only been able to recognize players’ names and things like that in men’s basketball.” 

Jones said she thinks South Carolina’s undefeated record also contributed to the high viewership numbers.

“I think that the reason why there’s more people was because of Caitlin Clark because she made history on being that highest point-scorer … in college history, so I think more people were really tuned into it just because they want to see how she grows,” Jones said. “Also, South Carolina hasn’t lost … so I think they wanted to see how … Caitlin would play against this really high team.” 

Athletic Director Kim Smith said she followed the women’s tournament more closely than the men’s this year particularly because of Caitlin Clark and Head Coach of South Carolina Dawn Stanley, who she went to college with. She also said she was rooting for UCLA and USC.

“These are … exceptional athletes that are playing, and it was the highest level of women’s basketball I’ve ever seen,” Smith said. “You could feel the energy of this movement of increased viewership and support of women’s sports and women’s basketball, so to be a part of that energy and tapped into that was a great experience for me.” 

As a basketball player, sophomore Alexa Kagiwada said she enjoys being able to watch basketball and compare it to how she plays. Additionally, she said she has seen more social media content about Caitlin Clark in particular and thinks this visibility helped engage people who don’t typically follow basketball.

“It’s really amazing how hard they try because, for a lot of the players, it’s their last season,” Kagiwada said. “They’re probably not moving on to professional, and I think it kind of reminds me of when seniors move on, it’s really emotional, and you put all your effort into this team, and I think that’s the most fun part.” 

Over the past few months, among her grade, Jones said she has seen more people watching women’s basketball and women’s sports generally.

“At Archer, I think it’s definitely grown because my friends don’t really like watching basketball at all, but the fact that they were tuned into these past few games I think it’s really starting to make Archer grow,” Jones said. “To see just a woman excelling in a certain area, just kind of, you know, allows us to feel like, ‘Oh, I can do that too.'”  

According to Adelphi University, for the 2022-2023 season, the NBA had a minimum salary of $953,000 and a maximum salary of $45,780,966, while WNBA’s minimum was $60,000, and the maximum was $234,936. Smith highlighted viewership’s role in helping close this gap.

“We get more viewership, more sponsorship, more money, and then they get to make salaries that are hopefully one day more equivalent to what the men are making, and they can make a living, not have two jobs,” Smith said. “So that viewership is everything.” 

This story was originally published on The Oracle on April 16, 2024.