As ESPN’s 14-year, $500 million deal for the media rights to NCAA championships other than football and men’s basketball is set to expire next year, there is rampant speculation about whether the women’s basketball tournament (and possibly other marquee collegiate championships) will be decoupled and sold separately to broadcasters and/or streamers.
Although clearly any new deal or deals will secure much more than the $36 million a year average currently paid by ESPN, the conundrum facing the NCAA is whether offering the women’s championship as a standalone property would net more revenue than keeping the package together.
As William Mao, senior vice president of media rights for Octagon told Sportico, “If you take that jewel out of the crown, does anybody still want the crown?” That’s the risk because there are so many other championships that are tied together here…the broader consideration from a strategic perspective is what does that do to the potential value of everything else?”
Regardless of how it all shakes out when negotiations and bids get underway in earnest later this year, there will be one constant factor that will continue to be a drag on the value of the media rights. Whoever buys them will not have the ability to package ad inventory with any on-site or other sponsorship elements unless the new owner is named CBS Sports or Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.
As the NCAA’s partners for the last 20 years, those two media giants control the sponsorship rights to all 90 NCAA men’s and women’s championships outside of football through their NCAA Corporate Champions and Partners Program.
That program, set to bring in $19.6 billion between 2010 and the end of the current contract in 2032, has been a financial boon to the NCAA, but also has created a unusual situation whereby the broadcaster of just one of the championships controls the partnership inventory for all.
For the past 13 years, ESPN—which has monetized its College Football Playoff rights by bundling bowl game naming rights and other sponsorship packages in with ad buys—has not been able to use that model with the other NCAA championships it broadcasts, including the women’s basketball tournament, baseball, softball, hockey, and others. It is of course free to sell ad spots to the NCAA’s 15 Partners and three Champions.
As long as the men’s basketball tournament has reigned as the undisputed king of NCAA championships, the structure of the organization’s sponsorship program has made financial sense, even as it disadvantaged the broadcaster of the other events.
But as this year’s March Madness has clearly demonstrated, that dynamic is swiftly changing, with the women’s championship attracting unprecedented interest right through a dramatic Final Four and Angel Reese and LSU’s win over Caitlin Clark and Iowa.
Will the current partnership program’s tie to the men’s basketball championship be the most rational model moving forward? Although the NCAA doesn’t have to answer that question until the Warner Bros Discovery/CBS contract expires in nine years, it’s a fascinating question and one that should be of particular interest to the companies eyeing the championship media rights about to hit the market.