The NCAA and ESPN announced on Thursday a $920 million, eight-year agreement that will give the network exclusive rights to 40 championships, including the Division I women’s basketball tournament, an event growing in popularity that the association has been accused of undervaluing in the past.
NCAA President Charlie Baker told The Associated Press the deal has an average annual value of $115 million, an increase of more than 300% per year on what the previous 14-year deal with ESPN was paying the association.
“Yes, it’s a bundle, but it’s a bigger bundle and it’s a bigger bundle that will be much better,” Baker said.
The deal covers 21 women’s and 19 men’s sports, adding tennis, track and field, men’s gymnastics, the women’s Division II and III volleyball and basketball championships and the men’s DII and DIII basketball championships.
The deal guarantees national championship events in Division I women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, women’s gymnastics, and the second-tier of Division I football known as FCS will be aired on ABC, though it does not guarantee any start times.
ESPN will also air selection shows for at least 10 championships on its linear networks.
“We had lots of conversations with lots of third parties and lots of interested parties, but we stayed with ESPN as long as they continued to make progress on the deal,” Baker said. “I do believe this was the best deal that was available.”
Baker said the NCAA’s media consultant, Endeavor’s IMG and WME Sports, has estimated about 57% of the value of the deal—or $65 million annually—is tied to the women’s March Madness tournament.
The popularity of the women’s tournament has steadily increased during its time as an exclusive ESPN property, setting viewership records last year. The title game between LSU with Angel Reese and Iowa with Caitlin Clark drew nearly 10 millions viewers.
“From Day 1, we made it very clear to Charlie and team that we were interested in an extension on the exclusivity side as well as the fact that we were interested in acquiring more rights, not less,” ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro said.
Baker said NCAA membership will discuss creating performance units paid out to conferences for success in the women’s tournament similar to those paid out for the men’s tournament.
The rights to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are owned by CBS and Warner Brothers Discovery, a deal that pays the association about $900 million per year and runs through 2032.
After being criticized for having inequitable resources and facilities at the the 2021 men’s and women’s single-site basketball tournaments, the NCAA—under previous president Mark Emmert—commissioned a law firm to do an outside review of gender equity throughout the association.
Among the numerous recommendations in the Kaplan report was to consider unbundling the women’s basketball tournament from the rest of the championships. Within that report, there was an estimate from Desser Sports Media that the tournament could be worth worth between $81 and $112 million annually beginning in 2025, when the new deal begins.
Hillary Mandel and Karen Brodkin, executive vice presidents for Endeavor, said those estimates set unrealistic expectations.
“We thought that there was a lot of flaws in that report,” Brodkin told the AP. “We think that every media partner we’ve ever spoken to thought that when it came out, they didn’t change their mind at any point in time, notwithstanding their interest in the property or properties.”
Endeavor modeled valuations for the women’s basketball tournament both bundled and unbundled, Mandel said.
“It’s important to know that the exercise was done, and it was looked at and they were open to (unbundling) and there were no sacred cows in this whatsoever. And where they landed is because ESPN came up with the best package for the women’s basketball championship,” Mandel said.
Patrick Crakes, a media consultant and former Fox Sports executive, said he was skeptical of the estimated values for the women’s tournament as a standalone property considering the uncertainty traditional media companies are dealing with due to consumers moving away from cable TV.
“Some of these numbers people were talking about, were not realistic,” Crakes said. “They just weren’t.”
Crakes said ESPN, with ABC broadcast, multiple cable networks, and a subscription streaming service, was the most sensible partner for the NCAA.
“This is worth more to ESPN as a bundle than it would be if the women’s basketball tournament was probably broken out and offered to fill in the blank (network),” he said. “Where’s it going to go? There’s not a lot of programming windows available for it. Who’s going to program that and pay?”
The deal was also struck within ESPN’s exclusive negotiating window and never brought to the open market.
“We had a good sense of who was interested in what, where they were going to put it and, generally speaking, what it would garner financially, production, promotion, distribution,” Brodkin said.
Brodkin and Mandel said the changing media landscape makes bringing a property to the open market riskier and cited the Big 12 moving quickly to extend partnerships with ESPN and Fox while the Pac-12 went to market and failed to find a deal that could keep the conference together.
“There is a more conservative approach right now because the simple economics are changing,” Mandel said.