Millions tuned in to watch two of the nation’s top teams go head-to-head in a historic NCAA women’s basketball championship semifinal.
The contest between South Carolina and Iowa was played in front of a sellout crowd at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, while an ESPN record average of 5.5 million people tuned in from home.
The large TV audience broke the previous record for the most-viewed women’s basketball semifinal, up 72% from last year, and the game was the fourth most-viewed women’s basketball game ever across all ESPN platforms after Sunday’s championship game took the first-place spot.
“I hope they saw some individual performances that will bring them back,” Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley said. “I hope they will want to learn a lot more about not just us, LSU and what (head coach) Kim Mulkey has done this season and getting to a national championship game."
The Gamecocks' and Hawkeyes' matchup was not the only game of the night that drew a large audience. The other semifinal game between LSU and Virginia Tech drew an average of 3.4 million views and peaked at 5 million.
Both games combined for an average of 4.5 million views, which is a 66% increase from last year's Final Four. The two semifinal games and the championship games were the three most-viewed ever on ESPN+ for college basketball, men's or women's. The championship game is now the most viewed college event on the platform.
Sunday's title game smashed women’s basketball viewership records. Peaking at 12.6 million views with an average of 9.9 million, the contest between Iowa and LSU set the record for the most-viewed women’s basketball game ever.
The previous record was the 1992 championship which featured Stanford and the Staley-led Virginia Cavaliers. The game had a 103% increase from last year’s South Carolina-UCONN championship game.
The increased audience is partially thanks to the game being put on broadcast television for the first time since 1996 when the games were on CBS.
The increased audience could potentially land the women's tournament its own TV deal. The 2023-24 season will be the last year under the NCAA's current deal with ESPN to broadcast all Division I championships, except football and men's basketball.
"I think the biggest opportunity there — and I would argue that the investments that have been made in the women's game have had a tremendous return to the women's game and to the players and the coaches and everybody else — is the fact that the timing on the bid associated with this is perfect," new NCAA President Charlie Baker said during the men's Final Four on Saturday. "Basically, this thing is going out this year and it's going out on the heels of what will have been the most successful tournament. ... Let's see what the market thinks it's worth. I think the market is going to think it's worth a lot."
Several college basketball stakeholders, including Staley, have voiced their support of a potentially separate and more lucrative deal.
"It should happen," Staley said before the team's Sweet 16 game vs. LSU. "We're at that place where we're in high demand. I do believe women's basketball can stand on its own and be a huge revenue-producing sport that could do, to a certain extent, what men's basketball has done for all those other sports."
The strong viewership this year was likely thanks to the long-anticipated matchup between the two most recent Naismith Players of the Year, South Carolina senior forward Aliyah Boston and Iowa junior guard Caitlin Clark.
“I thought it was a tremendous game for women's basketball,” Clark said after the semifinal win over the Gamecocks. “I know so many tuned in, and I think tonight showed how fun women's basketball is.”
Staley said that, while marquee matchups get people talking about the sport, they can often turn vulgar and hurtful.
“Anytime that you’re able to talk about our game and talk about two young women who have been storylines throughout the season, I think it's great,” Staley said. “I do think some people do cross the line at times, because they're each of their fan bases' favorites."
Still, increased discussions will make more people take notice of the talent displayed in women’s college basketball and hopefully bring in viewership to games outside the Final Four, according to Staley.
“We didn't have all No. 1 seeds here,” Staley said. “I hope they ask why, and then they'll find out that we had some incredible, exciting games that led to not every No. 1 seed being here.”
The two Naismith Players of the Year are just part of their teams, however. All 10 players on the court at any time during the Final Four games had a chance to showcase their skills in front of extra eyes.
“Fortunately for us — not just South Carolina, just us as women's basketball — we've got a lot of star power behind our sport, and it increases,” Staley said.
Like Staley and Clark, Boston said she hoped that the combination of the high-profile matchup, the Final Four setting and the primetime slot connected her with a new audience.
“I hope I gained some fans,” Boston said. “I think this game just grew women’s basketball.”
Sunday’s championship game that saw LSU defeat Iowa is also expected to have drawn a large audience when viewership numbers are released this week, despite South Carolina not being involved. The matchup between Clark and LSU sophomore forward Angel Reese marked another opportunity for two of the sport's top players to share the court.
Editor's note: This story was updated on April 4 at 1:20 p.m. with viewer statistics on the championship game.