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March Madness Viewership Sets New Records

This year’s NCAA Tournament scores BIG on Broadcast TV as the Women’s Final between Iowa and South Carolina smashes viewership records.

Meredith Cunningham Published: April 11, 2024
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With 18.9 million viewers tuning in to watch the Women’s NCAA Tournament Championship game, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Enthusiasm for women’s sports is reaching new heights. In fact, South Carolina’s defeat of Iowa was crowned the most-watched basketball game – college or pro, men’s or women’s – in the last five years.

To top things off, Iowa and its breakout star, Caitlin Clark, set even more records during three consecutive games. The team’s Elite Eight rematch against LSU drew 12.3 million March Madness viewers, while their Final Four victory over UConn captured the attention of 14.2 million viewers.

“This year’s final was a perfect combination of the game’s biggest player tipping off against an undefeated team. It’s a sports fan’s dream, a perfect storm,” says Dan McDonough, Director of Sponsorships at TEGNA. “With the rise of superstars like Clark and Angel Reese coming to the forefront, we’re seeing the women’s game grow, and viewership was up 91% this year compared to last.”

The Growing Role of Women in Sports Marketing

This is all good news for brand advertising. 

“Women’s leagues are getting more and more attention from major broadcast networks, and the value of this media is increasing exponentially,” says McDonough. 

“It’s providing a new avenue for brands to speak to their audience in new and creative ways. It’s also great to see them speaking to a young audience of girls who are growing up idolizing female athletes. You don’t necessarily see that in the men’s games.” 

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Some brands have already recognized the potential of women’s sports to create brand awareness among new, growing, and diverse audiences. Women’s pro sports sponsorships have climbed 22% since 2023, and females comprise 52% of all college athletes with NIL brand marketing partnerships

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese already have NIL deals with brands like Gatorade, State Farm, Nike and Reebok, Tampax, and several others. 

But it’s not only college basketball scoring big with growing success in viewership. 

Combined viewership for the 2023 WNBA regular season across ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, and CBS was up 21% over 2022, reaching 36 million unique viewers to become the most-watched regular season in 21 years. The women also contributed to the most-watched WNBA All-Star game on ABC in 16 years and the most-watched WNBA Draft since 2004 on ESPN. In-person game attendance was also up 16% versus 2022, marking the highest attendance rate since 2018. 

At the end of 2023, The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced a landmark media deal to air games using a broadcast and digital streaming distribution mix across CBS Sports, ESPN, Prime Video, and others in the US. 

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), currently in its inaugural season, has been shattering attendance records while setting benchmarks for TV viewership. Crayola also responded to the PWHL’s popularity with a new color named Powerplay Plum in its honor. 

Let’s Hear It for the Boys: Men’s March Madness Viewership

While the Women’s Final stole headlines this year, the Men’s NCAA Tournament also witnessed remarkable viewership numbers with significant year-over-year increases. Numbers reported by ESPN show: 

  • Championship: UConn’s 75-60 victory over Purdue on TBS and TNT averaged 14.82 million viewers.
  • Final Four: UConn vs. Alabama attracted 14.18 million; Purdue and NC State averaged 11.45 million viewers. 
  • Elite Eight: Purdue vs. Tennessee (10.4M viewers, +25% YoY); NC State and Duke (15.1 M viewers, +34% YoY) 
  • Second Round: 32 games on Saturday averaged 10.8 million viewers across TBS, CBS, TN, and truTV, marking the most-watched first day of the second round ever.
  • Entire Tournament: 67 games of the men’s tournament across CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV averaged 9.9 million viewers, a 3% increase over 2023’s tournament. 

“Whether women or men, March Madness and live sports dominate the new landscape of appointment TV,” says McDonough. “Viewers feel a sense of in-the-moment excitement and belonging that can’t be replicated through other forms of TV. For some, it provides an outlet to zone out all the stressful aspects of their busy lives and become a part of something bigger than themselves.”

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Broadcast Advertising For the Win

Brand advertising has three points to take from this year’s tournament.

  1. Once again, the Men’s and Women’s NCAA basketball tournaments brought out a large, broad, diverse, and captive audience of passionate fans for must-see TV with key matchups, emotional underdog stories, and future superstars. 
  2. As appointment TV and viewing habits continue to evolve across broadcast, streaming, and digital channels, one habit remains constant: Sports reign supreme in live viewership, and broadcast TV remains THE premier home for the most exciting and engaging sporting events.
  3. Women’s sports are on the rise and present amazing new opportunities to reach a new and growing audience in creative and inspirational ways. 

“For advertisers, live sports are only going to get more powerful in delivering brand messaging,” says McDonough. “This year, we’ve seen the highest-rated and most-watched Super Bowl of all time, and that was just the beginning. We’re continuing to see growth in ratings across every sport. The Paris Olympics are poised for a big ratings comeback, and innovations like the pitch clock in Major League Baseball are built for a live TV audience. These are all great opportunities, to say the least.”

Championship-Winning Campaigns with Team TEGNA  

Our ultimate goal is to equip brands with insights to capture the hearts and minds of sports fans nationwide. Team TEGNA knows the power of cross-platform ad campaigns that combine TV, CTV/OTT streaming, and digital assets, and we’re ready to jump-start your campaign today. With 64 broadcast stations in 51 markets nationwide, TEGNA has a unique ability to reach drivers across Broadcast, OTT Streaming, and digital solutions. Contact us today to see how we can accelerate your advertising.  

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