• Viewership for the women's NCAA basketball championship surpassed the men's final for the first time.
  • The rising popularity of women's basketball is reflected in factors like increased merchandise sales.
  • The surge in popularity of women's basketball is also being felt at the WNBA.

In college basketball, a significant shift in popularity has emerged.

Viewership for this year's NCAA basketball championship tournaments paints a clear picture of this evolving trend as the audience for the women's final game surpassed the men's final for the first time. There is also evidence of this shift in other areas, including merchandise sales and even the WNBA.

The 2024 women's NCAA championship game between the University of Iowa and the University of South Carolina drew 18.9 million viewers, according to the media audience measurement firm Nielsen. That was 28% more than the 14.8 million viewers for the men's matchup between Purdue University and the University of Connecticut.

The year-to-year ratings can be influenced by which teams and players are participating. However, using data from Nielsen and Sports Media Watch, we can see that the shift in popularity has been building for years — starting slowly in the late 2010s, right before COVID-19, and picking up speed this decade.

In 2015 and 2016, the men's championship game averaged 23 million viewers, nearly eight times the size of the women's final, with an average of 3 million. Over the next three years, the TV audience for the women's final grew by 23% to an average of 3.7 million.

In the first two years following the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA basketball championships due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the women's final kept up momentum, growing by an average of 27%.

In 2023 and 2024, the women's game reached new levels, surpassing the men's championships thanks to the surging star power of some of the biggest names in the sport. That includes players like Iowa's Caitlin Clark — who appeared in both finals — and Louisiana State University's Angel Reese in 2023. Additionally, the University of South Carolina coach Dawn Staley this season.

Women's basketball popularity goes beyond championship game ratings

We have seen other evidence of women's college basketball's emerging dominance in the sports landscape.

According to data provided to Business Insider by ticket marketplace StubHub, there was more demand for the women's three Final Four games than the men's, with sales surging 20% faster for the women's games than the men's once the teams were determined.

In some cases, sale prices for the women's tickets were twice the cost of men's games.

On the eve of the Final Four matchups, tickets to the women's championship game had an average sale price of $370, compared to $180 for the men's final, according to StubHub. The cost for a ticket that admitted a fan to the Final Four and the championship was $700 for the women and $540 for the men.

Meanwhile, merchandise sales related to women's college basketball are also soaring.

After Clark broke the all-time NCAA basketball scoring record for men and women this year, her merchandise at sports apparel retailer Fanatics became the highest-selling ever for any college athlete.

And, in November, when Nike announced it would be selling the college basketball jerseys of active players for the first time, three of the four inaugural athletes were women, including Clark, the University of Connecticut's Paige Bueckers, and freshman Juju Watkins of the University of Southern California. The only men's player was Bronny James from the University of Southern California, the son of LeBron James.

JuJu Watkins celebrates with USC fans following a win during the 2024 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament. Foto: Wally Skalij/Getty Images

We are also seeing evidence that the surge in the popularity of women's college basketball is also being felt at the next level, the WNBA.

The league announced record levels of popularity for the 2023 season in terms of TV viewership, attendance, and digital engagement. The growth of the TV audience was especially notable, as the WNBA's regular season saw a 21% increase compared to 2022.

After Clark was drafted with the first pick in the WNBA draft on April 15 by the Indiana Fever, her jersey was sold out in most sizes on Fanatics in the first hour following the announcement, according to Darren Rovell, founder of collectible media site Cllct.

The influence of NIL is being felt in women's sports

The reasons behind the growth in popularity of women's basketball are likely multifaceted, including increased media coverage and investment in women's sports.

However, another factor could be the emergence of name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals, in which college athletes can be compensated for endorsements and merchandise sales.

In addition to the increased exposure of star athletes to a broader audience, many women college stars may be enticed to stay in college longer and grow their star power, said Bruce B. Siegal, a partner in the entertainment and sports practice group at the law firm Greenspoon Marder. The firm also counsels and represents the Anchor Impact Fund, a NIL collective that works with athletes at Vanderbilt University.

"I think that for a lot of athletes, it may take the pressure off to feel like you've got to go pro early," Siegal told Business Insider. "Why not continue in college knowing that you can earn revenue and help support yourself, help support your family, and most importantly, graduate and get the education."

While the men's tournament still commands significant viewership, the rise in popularity of the women's tournament signals a promising future for women's basketball at all levels. As more fans tune in to watch the women's game, it creates a platform for female athletes to shine on a national stage and inspires future generations of young women to pursue their athletic dreams.

Have you recently spent a lot of money to attend a women's sports event? Reach out to this reporter at [email protected].

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