It’s only been a few short weeks since Outkick’s David Hookstead blamed some non-existent woke-ism manifesto for the placement of women’s college basketball dominating ESPN.com’s front page. A few weeks before that, Jason Whitlock was frothing at the mouth over women’s basketball highlights leading off SportsCenter. Welp, the boogeyman is back again, because the women’s NCAA Tournament has been the superior product buoyed by the more scintillating characters and storylines all March.
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We’ve seen Stanford’s upset at the hands of Ole Miss, Maddie Siegrist’s scoring eruptions, Caitlin Clark’s planetary range, and Kim Mulkey’s confetti-colored fits while men’s coaches these days stalk the sidelines in their morning sweaters. South Carolina’s unblemished record and Virginia Tech joining the upper echelon of college hoops was a more enticing product than the John Doe stories that the broken men’s bracket relies upon. The women’s bracket has finally concocted the perfect mix of early round upsets and the UConn monopoly has been replaced by multiple powerhouses vying for the top spot. It’s all relative, but the men’s Final Four field looks like survivors of a March Madness wreckage washing ashore.
The viewership trends reflect that dynamic. The Women’s Tournament has already set records for total minutes watched and average viewers per game, and after 56 games played has experienced a 42 percent viewership increase from the 2022 Tournament. Sunday’s Iowa-Louisville Regional Final was watched by more viewers than any NBA game on ESPN all season. Iowa’s win over Georgia in the second round had the largest viewing audience of any early-round game on record.
Even with UConn booted before the Sweet 16 for the first time in nearly two decades, the Women’s Final Four ticket prices have surpassed the get-in price for the men’s games. South Carolina and Iowa are the best shows on air Friday night. A chart-topping solo star being pitted against an undefeated band of defending champs who break souls on defense is an easier plot to sell than Team LifeWallet vs. UConn and the other Hurley brother.
Rivalries such as Dawn Staley vs. Mulkey (or Geno Auriemma) have had time to stew. Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, eyeballs were turning away from the men’s tournament en masse. Creighton and San Diego State couldn’t fill Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center in an Elite Eight. Sports Media Watch’s Jon Lewis told The Athletic that the final weekend will likely rank among the lowest viewership numbers seen in 2016 and Douglas Pucci, a Programming Insider editor, is betting on CBS enduring the lowest NCAA men’s Final Four ratings ever.
Last April’s Kansas and North Carolina final was the most-watched championship game in cable history. However, the blueblood bloodbath turning off viewers has eradicated the ratings and excised harmful narratives about the viability of women’s hoops. For all the struggles the WNBA has had with accumulating resources, chartering flights, and drawing consistent ratings, women’s college basketball has shown that it’s not the product, but the infrastructure that makes the difference.
It’s not that the men’s tournament was lacking in quality contests. UCLA-Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 matchup was a battle between known commodities and Kansas State-FAU was a riveting seesawing thriller.
However, one of the allures of college basketball is its place as an NBA minor league. The Tournament is where casual fans witness the emergence of future All-Stars. Twenty years ago, Dwyane Wade carrying Marquette into the Final Four made him a household name. That was the same year Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the title. Steph Curry was a revelation leading Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008. However, the top 2023 prospect being a French star diminished the stature of this year’s crop of NBA stars in training. The upcoming draft’s other top prospect plays for the G League Ignite and the Thompson twins have games suited for national audiences but went the Overtime Elite path.
Conversely, the nature of the WNBA’s draft eligibility rules, NIL money flowing into the sport, coupled with stars who’ve spent multiple years building up cachet has turned women’s college basketball into the Platonic Ideal for college athletics. The transfer portal that’s wreaking havoc on men’s college hoops isn’t as impactful on the women’s game when a majority of five-star recruits are required to exhaust their eligibility before entering the WNBA Draft.
The Women’s NCAA Tournament is in its golden era while the men’s tournament’s consistent record of success is a bubble ready to burst. The men’s 2023 March Madness has been defined by blue bloods and top seeds being swiftly eliminated and half of the Final Four is a Cinderella story. This could very well become the norm too. It’s not a binary choice, but given the current state of men’s college basketball, the women’s tournament is more than worthy of your viewing consideration. If you’re not paying attention, it’s your loss.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex
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