ACC In NCAA Tournament (Final Four)

Wolfpack Women Stepping Into
Awesome American Sports Spotlight
(As We Put Some TV Numbers In Perspective)

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

When the NC State women’s basketball team takes the court Friday (7 pm, ESPN) against 36-0 South Carolina in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, the Wolfpack will be stepping into one of the brightest, hottest spotlights in the history of women’s sports in America.

Last week’s Elite Eight matchup between Iowa and LSU attracted an average television/streaming audience of 12.3 million viewers, the largest ever for a college or professional women’s basketball game in the United States. The same two programs also attracted the fourth-largest such audience ever just last year, when they faced each other in the 2023 NCAA championship game.

Both games were streamed on ESPN+ and nationally televised on ESPN, which has had exclusive rights to the women’s NCAA Tournament since 1996.

Iowa, led by sensational two-time National Player of the Year sharpshooter Caitlin Clark, faces UConn in Friday’s other semifinal (9 pm, ESPN). The Hawkeyes, the runners-up to LSU last season, are playing in their third Final Four (1993, 2023, 2024) and seeking their first national championship.

LSU, led by polarizing head coach Kim Mulkey, a seven-time national champion (two as a player, one as an assistant coach, four as a head coach), has been eliminated from this year’s Big Dance but obviously has played a central role in the sport’s impressive surge in popularity, along with Clark.

Asked what she told Clark in the handshake line after Iowa’s 94-87 victory over LSU, in which Clark scored 41 points and made nine 3-point attempts, Mulkey responded: “What did I say to her? I said, ‘I sure am glad you’re leaving.’ I said, ‘Girl, you something else.’ Never seen anything like it.”

Mulkey actually has been a part of four of the five most-watched women’s college basketball games in history — the first two as the star point guard for Louisiana Tech in the 1982 and 1983 national championship games, and the more recent two as the LSU head coach, in the Tigers’ back-to-back NCAA Tournament matchups against Iowa.

That 1982 national championship game was a huge turning point in the history of women’s college basketball. It marked both the NCAA’s official embrace of women’s athletics — from 1971-82, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) had governed women’s college sports and hosted their various championship events — and it started a successful 14-year relationship (1982-1995) with CBS.

In the early 1980s, 98 percent of American households had at least one television set, and the three most important, popular channels — by far — were the national networks: ABC, CBS and NBC.

Although ESPN was created in 1979, and the availability/popularity of cable television gradually blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s, and the internet exploded later in the 1990s, ABC, CBS and NBC were able to attract enormous audiences for all sorts of programming during those two decades, in part because they simply had far less competition (fewer cable/satellite channels, no Netflix, no other streaming services, no social media, etc.) than what the marketplace has offered over the last two-plus decades.

That backdrop makes these recent ESPN audiences for the women’s NCAA Tournament even more impressive. Even in recent years, thanks to cord-cutting and cord-shaving, sporting events of all kinds have tended to draw significantly smaller numbers when they’re broadcast on a cable channel (e.g., ESPN, TBS, TNT) rather than on an over-the-air network (e.g., ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX).

Most Watched Women’s NCAA Tournament Games
(From Inaugural 1982 Event Through 2024 Elite Eight)

12.3 million — 2024 Elite Eight (Iowa 94, LSU 87), ESPN
11.8 million — 1983 Title Game (USC 69, Louisiana Tech 67), CBS
11.2 million — 1986 Title Game (Texas 97, USC 81), CBS
9.9 million — 2023 Title Game (LSU 102, Iowa 85), ESPN
8.8 million — 1982 Title Game (Louisiana Tech 76, Cheyney State 62), CBS
8.3 million — 1984 Title Game (USC 72, Tennessee 61), CBS
8.1 million — 1992 Semifinal (Stanford 66, Virginia 65), CBS
7.8 million — 1993 Title Game (Texas Tech 84, Ohio State 82), CBS
7.4 million — 1995 Title Game (UConn 70, Tennessee 64), CBS
7.3 million — 1991 Title Game (Tennessee 70, Virginia 67, OT), CBS

For comparison, below is a wide assortment of high-profile American sports programming, both championship games/races and other popular events, along with the average audiences those programs attracted during the 2022 calendar year. The record-setting women’s college basketball games from 2023 and 2024 are dropped in for illustrative/comparison purposes.

Event — Average U.S. TV/Streaming Viewers
(All Numbers From 2022 Unless Noted Otherwise)

Super Bowl — 112.3 million
College Football Playoff — 20.5 million (three-game average)
NCAA Final Four — 16.4 million (three-game average)
Kentucky Derby — 16 million
(2024 Women’s Elite Eight; Iowa 94, LSU 87 — 12.3 million)
NBA Finals — 12.3 million (per game)
World Series (MLB) — 12 million (per game)
Masters Sunday — 10.2 million
NFL Draft First Day — 10 million
(2023 Women’s Title Game; LSU 102, Iowa 85 — 9.9 million)
Daytona 500 — 8.9 million
US Open Sunday (golf) — 5.4 million
Preakness Stakes — 5.3 million
NFL Draft Second Day — 5 million
NCAA Tournament Selection Show — 5 million
Indianapolis 500 — 4.8 million
Belmont Stakes — 4.7 million
Stanley Cup Finals (NHL) — 4.6 million (per game)
NCAA Women’s Final Four — 3.5 million (three-game average)
NBA Draft — 3.1 million
NFL Draft Third Day — 2.8 million
US Open Men’s Final (tennis) — 2.2 million
US Open Women’s Final (tennis) — 1.8 million

For additional perspective, keep in mind that even the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has rarely generated the kinds of audiences that the women’s Final Four has attracted regularly for decades now (generally, 2-5 million per game, with significant variance and occasional outliers), and it has never seen anything like the truly enormous viewer numbers of those Iowa-LSU games.

Since the first four WNBA finals (1997-2000) averaged 1-3 million viewers per game, the league hasn’t had a single contest — not an All-Star Game, not a postseason game, nothing — with even a 1 million-viewer average.

Similarly, the most successful women’s professional soccer leagues in America have rarely approached even 1 million viewers for a single match. The current top-level women’s league in the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), has never had one, not even for its championship game.

The only place in American women’s sports history where one can find television/streaming numbers like those of these 2023 and 2024 March Madness peaks is in the highest-profile international competitions, such as the Olympics and the World Cup.

For example, whenever the United States Women’s National Team (by far the most dominant program in women’s soccer history) plays in the Women’s World Cup championship match, there are huge TV/streaming numbers in the United States.

Just on English-language TV, for example, the American audiences for the most recent Women’s World Cup title contests involving the USWNT were 18 million in 1999 (USA-China/ABC), 13.5 million in 2011 (USA-Japan/ESPN), 22.3 million in 2015 (USA-Japan/FOX) and 14 million in 2019 (USA-Netherlands/FOX).