Another season, another set of solid viewership numbers for the women’s college softball tournament and World Series.
That shouldn’t be a surprise: Women’s sports have grown in popularity via many metrics — TV audiences, attendance, funding, participation, opportunities — amid their decades-long quest for more equitable treatment since Title IX became law in 1972.
What softball’s TV numbers, and continued strong women’s basketball metrics, mean is that the NCAA could break those sports into their own media rights deals — or package them with their men’s counterparts — to realize greater financial value when the contracts are up in two years.
And in theory, more broadcast rights money should mean more support for those programs’ championships. But before delving deeper into the future of the TV rights, let’s look closer at the softball results from last week.
Powerhouse Oklahoma’s two-game championship series sweep of unseeded Texas in an all-Big 12 affair averaged 1.6 million viewers in primetime on ESPN and ESPN2 last week. That’s a healthy number, for sure, and down only modestly from the record-setting 1.85 million average in 2021 for the Sooners’ three-game win over Florida State.
The trophy hunting Sooners track down National Championship number SIX!!! 🏆
— NCAA Softball (@NCAASoftball) June 10, 2022
Oklahoma won the opener 16-1 on Wednesday night to an audience of 1.41 million on ESPN — a game that aired against Game 3 of the NBA Finals (11.52 million, ABC). Softball viewership peaked at 1.8 million, the network said.
Game 2 of the softball championship on Thursday — the Sooners’ 10-5 clincher — averaged 1.74 million with a peak of 2.1 million viewers on ESPN2. No NBA competition that night, but some people (me included) were at the premiere of the new Jurassic World flick (I generously gave it a C grade), and about 20 million folks tuned into Congress’ Jan. 6 insurrection hearing that aired on several broadcast and cable channels.
That night also was Game 5 of the NHL Eastern Conference final between the Lightning and Rangers that averaged 2.48 million viewers on ESPN (which is why softball was bumped to ESPN2 that night).
So for softball to see an uptick in Game 2, in the face of solid competition for eyeballs on other channels, is a net positive. Particularly so because these were not close games, and tighter contests and a longer series usually lead to better viewership. The Sooners’ 2021 championship saw the Seminoles win the opener, and play closer games, to keep the series compelling.
Still, why was there a viewership decline compared to 2021? Perhaps sooner fatigue is in play? This latest championship was the program’s sixth overall in 15 World Series appearances. Oklahoma has won four of the past six softball titles. Texas, which hadn’t made the tournament since 2013 and is still chasing its first softball championship, was the tournament’s Cinderella story but ultimately was no match for Oklahoma.
“Hard to keep up with a record pace. The absence of Florida State and James Madison (the latter being a surprise upset story in 2021) probably hurt as well. Then you finish with an absolutely lopsided final between Oklahoma and Texas. Maybe there might have been an element of inevitability with Oklahoma as well, which we have seen with dominant teams in other sports,” said Jon Lewis, founder of Sports Media Watch, a site that’s tracked live sports viewership since 2006.
Last week’s Game 2 also boasted a championship-game record of 12,257 in attendance at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, Okla.
The championship series wasn’t the first postseason meeting for the Sooners and Longhorns. Oklahoma beat Texas 7-2 on June 4 in the inaugural Women’s College World Series broadcast on ABC, per ESPN (which handles publicity and production for its sister network). That game averaged a healthy 1.25 million viewers for the mid-afternoon Saturday contest.
This year’s full 16-game softball tournament averaged 1 million viewers for ESPN networks, which is a decline from last season’s record-best 1.2 million average. There was no tournament in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Three years ago, the tournament averaged 1.05 million viewers.
Prior to 2021’s audience mark, the old college softball viewership record was in 2015, averaging 1.19 million viewers. Last year, 10 of the 17 tournament games averaged at least 1 million viewers.
It should be noted that TV ratings tracker Nielsen didn’t include out-of-home (OOH) viewership until summer 2020, meaning that older events don’t have that audience baked into their totals — potentially upwards of 10 percent of the total. OOH is viewing at venues like bars, restaurants, hotels and other people’s homes.
In today’s TV landscape, properties such as the women’s college basketball tournament and the softball championship have shown they command solid viewership. The value of their broadcast rights, however, was set in a much different era. In an age of declining television usage and cord-cutting, such modest undulations in viewership are secondary to the fact live sports are far more resistant to eyeball declines than most programming — meaning there is value yet to be unlocked in properties such as softball.
The softball tournament is part of the 14-year, $500 million deal ESPN inked with the NCAA in December 2011 for the broadcast rights to 24 collegiate sports championships through 2024. That was before streaming, before cord-cutting, and at the infancy of social media — and athletes didn’t have NIL rights that further goose value.
Because networks have an insatiable thirst for decline-resistant live sports broadcast and streaming rights it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some of the sports in that deal get individual or mini-bundle deals in the next round of rights.
That could include women’s basketball and softball. Alternatively, because those sports add eyeball heft to the wider package of sports, the NCAA could opt to keep them bundled in a bid to boost the overall financial value.
“In spite of critics’ comments to the contrary for decades, there is enough audience and appetite for women’s sports,” said Mary Jo Kane, director emerita of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “Advertisers take note, corporate executives take note. They see there is not only an audience but a great hunger to broadcast women’s sports. Every single time they do, they’re rewarded beyond measure.”
While anything can happen, Kane said she wouldn’t be surprised if the next round of NCAA TV deals includes separate or bundled deals for the most popular women’s sports such as softball and basketball.
“All the cards are on the table and the NCAA has the opportunity, some leverage, and the athletes do too with NIL,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you try to bundle and make as much of a profit and leverage yourself as best you can? Sport is always a growth industry and women’s sports have proven that’s the case as well.”
One media rights expert familiar with the NCAA’s deals said it makes sense to start selling sports championships such as women’s basketball and softball on their own or packaged with the men’s championships in those sports.
“We recommended to the NCAA that they do so in our gender equity media report last August,” said Desser Media Inc.’s Ed Desser, a former NBA senior executive who has negotiated TV rights deals for teams across several major leagues and organizations. “We didn’t address bundling only women’s basketball and softball, but we recommended that at a minimum the women’s basketball event be sold on its own, and that it was likely that others should be as well.”
Desser’s firm was hired by Kaplan Hecker & Fink to complete the NCAA’s gender equity review of women’s basketball that was published last August. The findings showed that women’s hoops by 2025 could be worth more than $100 million a season, and it recommended the NCAA break out several sports championships for future rights negotiations.
“The College World Series and women’s softball both reach substantial spring/summer audiences and would make a compelling combination, especially for a partner that is invested in baseball or has a live sports programming gap at that time of year,” the report stated.
There are risks to unbundling sports such as softball and women’s basketball or wrapping them into smaller bundles, one industry insider said.
“I think you’ve got to weigh any possible increased rights fee against loss of reach and high quality scheduling windows by a media partner (ESPN) that views you as a core strategic property,” said Patrick Crakes, a media industry analyst and former Fox Sports Executive.
“What happens to the other sports when you break them out in multiple bundles, as well? Also, don’t expect any of these properties to get the same viewing on different platforms and networks they do now. What you may end up doing in pursuit of rights fees for softball and baseball is blow up the larger bundle that built many of them. I’d be very careful.”
A message was left for the NCAA.
One thing is certain: ESPN, or whoever ends up buying the rights, will certainly pay more than $500 million for them. And it’s an open question on whether either side would be interested in a 14-year deal again.
On the baseball side, the 64-team regional/super regionals are done and the eight-team College World Series begins Friday. The teams vying for the championship are Arkansas, Auburn, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Stanford, Texas, and Texas A&M in a 10-day, double-elimination tournament. Games will air on ESPN and ESPN2.
The tournament begins with Texas A&M versus Oklahoma at 2 pm ET Friday followed by Texas versus Notre Dame at 7 pm Both are on ESPN. The finals are scheduled for June 25-27.
(Photo: Brett Rojo / USA Today)