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Women's NCAA basketball title game TV audience bigger than men's for first time

Women's NCAA championship game outdraws men's with 18.9 million viewers. Increased exposure and young talent contributing to growth in women's sports.

The women's NCAA championship game made history by attracting a larger television audience than the men's title game for the first time ever. A staggering average of 18.9 million viewers tuned in to watch undefeated South Carolina triumph over Iowa and superstar Caitlin Clark. This game, aired on ABC and ESPN on a Sunday afternoon, outperformed the men's final between UConn and Purdue by four million viewers. The Huskies' victory averaged 14.82 million viewers on TBS and TNT.

The women's game, which saw the Gamecocks secure their fourth national title and deny Clark's Hawkeyes their first, reached its peak audience of 24.1 million during the final 15 minutes. UCLA coach Cori Close noted the growth in attendance records, viewership, and social media engagement surrounding March Madness. Close attributed this success to the overall quality of the product and the increased exposure that women's basketball is receiving.

This historic event marked the second most-watched non-Olympic women's sporting event on U.S. television, following only the 2015 Women's World Cup final between the United States and Japan. The Women's World Cup final averaged 25.4 million viewers on Fox. The record for the most-watched women's basketball game still belongs to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold medal game between the United States and Brazil, which averaged 19.5 million viewers.

Nielsen's numbers now include an estimate of viewers watching outside their homes, a metric that was not measured before 2020. The in-home audience has been steadily declining annually due to cord-cutting. The audience for the national title game increased by 90% compared to the previous year when Iowa lost to LSU, marking the first time since 1995 that the championship was on network television.

Former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, now running a sports television consulting company, highlighted the significant increase in viewership for women's basketball this year. Pilson noted that more people were tuning in to watch women's basketball games, making it appointment television for many. The growth in audience has also been beneficial for other women's sports, not just basketball, as noted by Clark during the Final Four.

As Clark prepares to transition to the WNBA, there are concerns about whether the college game can continue to attract large audiences. However, the influx of talented freshmen like JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo, and Madison Booker offers hope for the future of women's basketball. The increased exposure during the regular season on network television, with networks like Fox, NBC, and CBS broadcasting games, has also contributed to the growth of the women's game.

Looking ahead, the success of this year's tournament has set the stage for further growth in women's basketball. While the star power of players like Clark has been a driving force behind the increased viewership, the overall improvement in the game's competitiveness and promotion of its stars has also played a significant role. The return of the championship game to network television has been a boon for the women's game, showcasing its appeal to a wider audience. With the continued promotion and exposure of women's basketball, the future looks bright for the sport.

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