Superstars and ‘Super Teams’ are powering women’s basketball to super growth
By now, you’ve seen the numbers.
TV viewership for last weekend’s NCAA women’s basketball Sweet 16 was up 73 percent year-over-year. TV viewership for the women’s Elite 8 was up 43 percent.
Attendance at those two rounds (82,275 fans) shattered a 20-year-old record by more than 8,000 fans.
Sunday night’s game between Iowa and Louisville — where Hawkeyes star Caitlin Clark scored 41 points on her way to a triple-double — averaged 2.5 million viewers on ESPN, more than any NBA broadcast on that network this season. That’s the highest viewership for any pre-Final Four game in women’s basketball history, joining 3 other games from this year that rank in the top 7 all-time.
The get-in price to this weekend’s women’s Final Four in Dallas is over $300.
All of this is happening while TV viewership of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament dropped in every Sweet 16 and Elite 8 viewing window. The get-in price to this weekend’s men’s Final Four in Houston has dropped below $100.
There’s one clear reason the men’s and women’s tournaments are moving in different directions: Star power.
The difference in women’s & men’s star power
The most talented men’s basketball players only spend a year or two in college, with some even skipping college to go straight to the NBA’s G-League.
Those players aren’t sticking around long enough to become college basketball stars and get the attention of the common sports fan.
The result is a Division I with more parity — perhaps a good thing for the hardcore fan — that has led to this year’s Final Four that features three first-time contestants (Florida Atlantic, Miami and San Diego State). The games have been great, but this year’s semifinal matchups are not going to get the common fan riled up.
Women’s college basketball, though, has everything the men’s game is missing these days.
There are recognizable superstars who have been in college for years. That list starts, of course, with Iowa’s Clark, but she’s not the only one.
Aliyah Boston (South Carolina), Angel Reese (LSU) and Georgia Amoore (Virginia Tech) are all recognizable upperclassmen who will be playing in the Final Four. The Cavinder twins (Miami) are TikTok stars whose stardom transcends sports, and they reached the Elite 8.
All of these players could return next year if they desire. And UConn’s Paige Bueckers — who might be a better pro talent than Clark — will be back from an ACL injury.
Oh, and there’s also a “Super Team” this year: Defending champion South Carolina hasn’t lost a game all season. Only four teams have managed to stay within 10 points of the Gamecocks.
The highest-rated men’s Final Four game on record — by far — is the 2016 semifinal between Wisconsin and undefeated Kentucky. Fans tune in to watch a team chase greatness.
People want to see a super product. That’s why Friday night’s dream semifinal between Iowa and South Carolina has a super shot at breaking the women’s Final Four record of 3 million viewers.
The “Super Team” era is here in the WNBA
There’s a good chance the momentum from this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament carries into the WNBA season — which starts May 19— thanks to the beginning of the “Super Team” era.
Coming off last year’s WNBA title, the Las Vegas Aces signed two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker to a team that already includes two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, All-Star Game MVP Kelsey Plum and Finals MVP Chelsea Gray.
The New York Liberty signed 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart and 4-time All-Star Courtney Vandersloot, and traded for 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones, adding them to a team that already includes 2020 first-overall pick Sabrina Ionescu.
It’s a trend that’s new to the WNBA but not new to basketball.
The NBA’s “Super Team” movement started a decade ago when LeBron James went to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The best NBA Finals ratings since the Michael Jordan came in games LeBron James played with the Heat, and later with the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors’ own “Super Teams”.
There are detractors who don’t like seeing this starting in the WNBA, worried that it may impact competitive balance. But it will surely bring more eyeballs to the league’s games.
The Liberty will play nine nationally-televised games this season, and the Aces will play seven. If they meet in the finals in September, those games could set some records just like the college games have been doing.