The 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament was the biggest in women’s college basketball history for viewership and sports betting. When the dust settled, LSU topped Iowa in the title game and cut down the nets.
Viewership on earlier-round games rose 42% from 2022, according to ESPN, which broadcasts all tournament games. This year’s Elite 8 matchups averaged 2.2 million viewers across four games.
Arizona sportsbooks continue to set new highs and will contribute significantly to a record-setting tournament for women’s basketball betting. Over the opening weekend’s first two rounds, the state produced the most handle of any state for the women’s basketball tournament, according to Christian Cipollini of BetMGM via email.
The top five states were Arizona, Massachusetts, Tennessee, New York and Illinois.
Women’s tournament inches toward equity
Arizona sports betting is fueled by 18 online sportsbooks, along with several retail sportsbooks, some at tribal casinos in the state. The only team from Arizona in March Madness this year, No. 7 seed Arizona Wildcats, made it to the second round, falling to No. 2 seed Maryland.
Last year’s championship game between UConn and South Carolina averaged 4.85 million viewers, the most since 2004, and was the most bet-on women’s game in history on BetMGM Sportsbook.
The 2022 tournament averaged 634,000 viewers per game across all rounds, a 16% YoY increase. Still, its popularity wasn’t enough for sports outlets such as CBS to offer bracket pool challenges as it has done for decades with the men’s tournament.
While CBS rectified the problem this year, others, such as Action News, a site known for betting information and pick tracking, still offer no content on women’s college basketball whatsoever.
ESPN seeing interest in women’s tournament games rise
But it’s not all gloom and doom.
ESPN’s Women’s Tournament Challenge has been around for years, and Walt Disney Company EVP of consumer experiences and platforms Mike White said it grew by 67% last year and by four times lifetime.
ESPN also moved its women’s selection show from Monday to Sunday last year. This year’s show resulted in 1.27 million average viewers, up 18% YoY and the most since 2005. White said increased numbers are guiding decisions.
“We do it because that’s where our fans are. With the growth and the numbers, we’re seeing real success there. We do have the [TV] rights, as you know, but we would invest in it anyway.”
ESPN fully sold out its commercial slots for the entire tournament two days after the selection show.
This year’s women’s tournament features 6 games on ABC
ESPN’s broadcasting of the women’s NCAA Tournament dates back to 2003. As of 2019, ESPN2 broadcasted the Final Four, while the national championship aired on ESPN.
In 2021, ABC entered the picture during the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds, while ESPN broadcasted the Final Four and National Championship. A year later, 2022’s increased viewership of 16% YoY and 4.85 million average viewers for the national title prompted the network to move this year’s final game to ABC, said Dan Ochs, who handles women’s basketball programming for ESPN.
“Putting it on ABC, we’re giving it the best opportunity for success. This tournament continues to grow and deliver for us.”
The tournament hasn’t just grown for (or because of) ESPN and ABC, though.
It grows because of the quality of basketball played on the court. Because whether men or women are on the court, it’s March Madness. And March Madness provides the drama and upsets, bringing out the highest level of athletic competition in college sports. That’s why it’s grown in popularity to deserve a spot on national television.
Still, having six games on ABC, including Tuesday’s national championship game, allowed for an even wider audience to watch the game, creating even higher ceilings for the sport.
Viewership continues to rise across all women’s college basketball
The hype around NCAA women’s basketball has been palpable all year, not just for March Madness.
More data from ESPN revealed that it averaged 199,000 viewers for the 83 games it aired across its networks (+11% YoY), the best since 2014-15. February’s matchup between South Carolina and LSU – two Final Four teams – averaged 1.5 million viewers, the most on ESPN since 2010.
The Big Ten Network also announced record viewership for the season. Additionally, it stated this year’s Big Ten Tournament was the most watched, with Iowa-Maryland’s 380,000 average viewers the most for a single game in network history.