NCAA agrees to $920 million, 8-year deal with ESPN for women’s March Madness, 39 other championships

NCAA agrees to $920 million, 8-year deal with ESPN for women’s March Madness, 39 other championships

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 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.

“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.

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.

“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.

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.