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Column: ESPN/Disney has invested in the Women’s NCAA Tournament and fans are responding with viewership

This year’s Women’s NCAA Tournament has set viewing records and is making history.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

March Madness is a spectacle, and every year the masses get together to view one of the greatest three week stretches in sports. The spectacle of sports grabs the attention of the American public. This year the the adoration and fandom has not stopped at the Men’s tournament, and the annual Women’s NCAA Tournament has been on a record setting run.

Over the year, many of the major sports programming networks have made a commitment of broadcasting women sporting events in the spotlight. This year’s women’s tournament can be found on Disney’s linear broadcast network ABC and the primary ESPN channel with additional coverage on the other ESPN networks.

ESPN’s dedicated studio show is one of the staples of the past few weeks. Rather than competing with their own group of analysts covering the men’s tournament, they have stuck to the increased investment leaning into having women’s coverage from the start of the tournament until the day ends.

This investment has paid off, and the viewership numbers show that fans will watch when the games are accessible.

The first round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament averaged over 257,000 viewers over the 32 games that make up the first round. According to ESPN’s PR account, that is a 27 percent year over year increase.

That comes on the back of multiple consecutive years of viewership increase. Last season there was a 16 percent increase, and that is all in line with the additional coverage given to the women’s tournament.

The men’s tournament has also set records in their opening round viewership. This shows the NCAA’s investment into both tournaments have been returned, and the additional commitment to increasing eyes on the women’s game does not rely on competing interest with the men’s game. If anything, it says the coexistence makes both tournaments even more viable with staggered start times, different days for games, and different locations creates the ability to maximize the potential of both.

Moving forward to the full viewership totals of the first two rounds, Iowa’s matchup against Georgia on ABC had 1.46 million viewers, which was the most for a second round matchup all-time in the women’s tournament. The tournament favorite South Carolina is a draw with over 1.1 million viewers for their second round matchup, where the game was really never in reach for their opponent USF.

The likes of Ohio State, North Carolina, UConn, and the remaining brand names led to an average top-10 game viewership of 852,400.

Looking deeper at those numbers, the games on ABC have outranked their corresponding round total viewership and have ranked as the highest viewership totals on their respective days. This has been a milestone, and the NCAA has been aiming to give this platform to the game for some time.

“Scheduling the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship on ABC has been a goal for quite some time in our ongoing efforts to maximize the exposure of women’s sports in collaboration with the NCAA,” said Burke Magnus, President, Programming and Original Content in a Statement on NCAA’s website. “Women’s NCAA Championships continue to generate strong audiences across the ABC/ESPN networks and this move represents yet another unique opportunity to showcase this marquee event and the student-athletes who are competing for a national championship.”

The NCAA Tournament is not the only area there has been milestones The Big Ten has increased their own commitment to broadcasting the women’s game. Ohio State holds another part of a record in this regard, taking part in the most watched women’s basketball game on the Big Ten Network. This is where the growth of the game has been holistic, as conferences are seeing additional value as well.

All these numbers have shown an increase that warrants more commitment. The numbers from the second weekend should reflect even bigger viewership. When those are released, there will be increased year-over-year viewership which says everything about the tired tropes that many fans still trot out. When the people responsible for programming give the women’s game a platform, people are not only willing to watch, but they live and die with their school the same way.

For Ohio State fans, the winning shot from Jacy Sheldon against North Carolina was the No. 1 trending topic in Ohio, and was a major trending topic in 27 states according to the Google Trends. And Ohio State’s tweet about the women’s team making the Elite 8 got over 500,000 views — with a typo.

Now all these stories are just small individual parts of a grander conversation about the commitment to women’s sports. Looking around, the growth of the women’s game has been immense over the last decade.

The stories about the USWMNT getting equal pay representation with the United State Soccer Federation, the Women’s College World Series outdrew the last season’s men’s college world series, and this year the Women’s NCAA Tournament has set viewership records every single round. There is nothing to say that this increased investment by networks into women’s sports won’t continue this growth of the respective sports.

That growth in Women’s College Basketball will culminate in the national championship on April 2nd. There’s the current powerhouse South Carolina led by superstar coach Dawn Staley, the best player in the women’s game in Caitlin Clark and her Iowa Hawkeyes, and the list includes Ohio State’s Jacy Sheldon and breakout star Cotie McMahon.

Watching the Buckeyes continue on this run has been stressful, exciting, and the whole wave of emotion. The Buckeyes struggled out of the gate against James Madison, but suffocated the overmatched Lady Dukes into a double digit defeat. Following the first round the Buckeyes had blew a huge lead to the North Carolina Tar Heels. This led to the Sheldon’s career moment.

They weren’t done yet, even if the country thought UConn was a shoe-in to the Elite 8. Ohio State’s press was too much for even the great Geno Auriemma, and now the Buckeyes are a game away from the Final Four in San Antonio, Texas.

If you haven’t yet, the biggest game in Ohio State’s program in over 40 years is tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Buckeyes will be playing the Virginia Tech Hokies, and there is little doubt this game will be incredible. The Buckeyes are in real contention for a national title, and have represented Buckeye nation with a will to fight to the end.

Disney has invested in the women’s game, and the results show in the record viewership that the investment has been well worth it.