Women’s basketball looks to have found a winner with its new Sweet 16 format in March Madness and the timing couldn’t be better with TV contract negotiations looming on the horizon.
The two locations – Greenville, South Carolina and Seattle – saw record-breaking attendance and TV ratings. It added momentum en route to a star-studded Final Four lineup in Dallas.
NCAA Select Committee Chair Lisa Peterson expects the format’s success to help in upcoming contract negotiations. The current NCAA TV deal ends next summer.
“It has to be,” she said. “I am really looking forward to these talks. That can only do the game good. People talk about it.”
TV ratings for Friday and Saturday games averaged 1.2 million viewers, a 73% increase from last year. Saturday afternoon’s matchup between Ohio State and UConn on ABC was the most-watched Sweet 16 game of all time, averaging 2.4 million viewers.
Ratings for Sunday’s and Monday’s games on ESPN also rose — by 43% and an average of 2.2 million. Sunday night’s Iowa-Louisville contest, which featured dynamic guard Caitlin Clark, led with 2.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched Elite Eight game of all time.
Tag Garson, Wasserman’s senior vice president of properties, said this year’s ratings will be one of many factors shaping the NCAA’s path.
“When you look at how ratings are moving as you prepare for a negotiation, don’t just look at one year,” he said. “You look at historical value while projecting future value.”
The NCAA is expected to decide by this fall whether to keep the women’s tournament separate or as part of the championship televised package, which includes at least 24 sports.
Peterson and her group will have much to review.
The Greenville and Seattle arenas were mostly full which created a fun atmosphere. While in Greenville, with the undefeated Gamecocks, a high number of visitors was expected. The closest team to Seattle was Colorado – 1,300 miles away.
The distance didn’t stop fans from flocking to Seattle, with strong support from basketball fans across the city thanks in part to the success of WNBA’s Storm over the past two decades. In the end, the Seattle region overtook its South Carolina counterpart by a few thousand. A total of 82,275 fans attended the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games, including 43,556 in Seattle.
“It was really a great atmosphere to play in. You love playing in such an atmosphere with such a crowd and playing in a great building like this,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, whose team played in Seattle.
The NCAA also hopes the success will lead to more cities applying to host the regional games and eventually the Final Four.
“With the number of cities that had applied (in the past), we didn’t have that many options,” Peterson said. “With the success we’ve had, hopefully it opens new doors so we don’t keep going to the same cities.”
Seattle’s local organizing committee said it expects the tournament to bring in more than $8.3 million for the city.
“When we host events like this, there’s no script that says it’s a guaranteed success,” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell told The Associated Press. “You don’t know how the fans are going to come out, but what has been proven over and over again, especially in women’s sports, is that they come from all over the state, even Canada. … The revenue is incredible for our tax base.”
Harrell threw Seattle’s hat in the ring for a future women’s Final Four and said he would love his city to have the opportunity.
One of the next steps the NCAA plans for the upcoming two regional locations is to turn them into “Mini Final Fours.”
Many fans seemed to be enjoying the new format, which showed more than just their team’s games. Dave Lichtliter, who is from Pennsylvania, attended both Friday and Saturday games and enjoyed the extended field.
“You see more teams,” said Lichliter, who wore an LSU championship football jersey as of 2019. “Next year is Albany (New York) and Portland (Oregon) so we’ll see how that goes.”
So will the NCAA.
The two-city format will continue for at least another three years. The next application cycle will begin in July, when regional hosting will be decided from 2027-31.
“We’ve been doing this for three years. It’s not a permanent deal,” Peterson said. “As always, we will evaluate it. If we feel like it’s not working, we’ll see what we have to do to change it. Whether it’s format changes or an extra day, whatever that looks like, we’ll keep looking into it.”
There were a few logistical issues with the two locations.
With eight schools in one venue, some adjustments were needed from teams and arena staff. Training time on the pitch has been reduced from 90 to 60 minutes to accommodate all eight time on the pitch. It also required a bit more coordination when it came to the locker rooms, where teams had to double down.
But none of that seems to bother players. Some said it felt like an AAU tournament from their younger days with so many teams in the same place.
“I think it’s fun. I think it’s cool,” Clark said, before the Hawkeyes guard added, “Obviously we’re not going to get to all the games, it just doesn’t work that way, but I think I like the two regional sides.”
• AP sportswriters Tim Booth in Seattle, Pete Iacobelli in Greenville, South Carolina, and Joe Reedy contributed to this story.
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