What NCAA media rights deal means for the WNBA — Robyn Fralick talks Michigan State

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Jan. 17, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert gave an interview to Fortune Magazine that appeared on January 12 in which she said, “The tough part of women’s sports continues to be the undervaluing of our assets.” Engelbert sure has that right. The ramifications of the NCAA’s new media rights deal are still coming into focus, but there’s several knock-on effects from the way the NCAA approached this that could hurt the WNBA’s position as it negotiates a new deal of its own in 2025.

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Let’s start with the valuation itself. $65 million is a lot compared to what the NCAA previously valued the women’s basketball tournament at, around a ten-fold increase. It is, however, dramatically less than the $81-$112 million estimated by Kaplan, Hecker and Fink in its NCAA gender equity report.

To hear the NCAA tell it, this reduction comes from a number of factors, including a dramatic reversal of the media rights financial landscape since that report was completed way back in 2021.

“It’s unfortunate to me in some ways, if there’s disappointment with the valuation of the tournament at $65 million because of a maybe an inflated expectation on our evaluation that was done a couple of years ago,” NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt said when I asked him about this gap earlier this month. “We believe, after doing a lot of due diligence with media experts, that was flawed in many ways because of too much emphasis on affiliate fees and inflated valuation because of that. The reality is that was basketball championship, just a few years ago, was was valued independently at six or $7 million a year. And now, just four years later, is valued at 10 times that amount.”

He went on to credit the student athletes as well as ESPN for this jump. But the problem with doing that is several-fold.

For one thing, the $65 million valuation came within a deal that packaged the women’s basketball championship with other women’s sports ESPN has also broadcast, including women’s volleyball. This packaging is something else the Kaplan report argued would devalue the women’s basketball championship, and the strong recommendation was made to separate it out.

But the overall landscape? The new NCAA deal, powered by women’s basketball, tracks not with other women’s sports in the deal from ESPN, but rather with the growth in such places as the NWSL new media rights deal signed in late 2023 ($60 million per year, up from $1.5 million) and things like expansion fees and sale prices of women’s sports teams. A tenfold increase, in that light, looks far less impressive. It looks like a financial opportunity missed.

We know that the NCAA understands why separating the deal out would have mattered because it does just that with it’s men’s basketball championship, sold stand-alone to CBS. But when I pointed out that despite a title game rating of 14.7 million in 2023 — or around 50% higher than the title game of Iowa-LSU for the women — the men’s tournament valuation per year is approximately 12 times higher, Charlie Baker pushed back hard on the idea that… I’d undervalue the men’s tournament.

“Don’t undervalue that men’s tournament,” Baker cautioned me. “That men’s tournament averages nine and a half million viewers in 30 windows over 30 days. There’s no other athletic event in the country that delivers the number of eyeballs that that one does over the course of a 30-day period. It’s completely different than basically almost everything else.”

This is everyone’s favorite game in women’s sports, right? The “conflating inputs and outputs” game! Despite giving it this royal treatment, allowing CBS to sell sponsorships on the men’s hoops tournament alone (another reason for the gap in treatment, per the Kaplan report) and repeating that process for decades, we still saw a rough parity in national title game treatment. But the women’s tournament gets dinged both ways here! It isn’t paired with the men’s basketball tournament, and it is paired with other sports as well, which the NCAA made clear they thought would be best at ESPN, given that network’s ability to travel to many locations that change over time. A fair point. It’s what is best for the NCAA.

Can you say it’s what’s best for women’s basketball?

“I do,” Baker replied. “And I say that because it’s very consistent with with where most of the so-called experts were when they gave us ranges when this whole process began.”

So if you’re keeping score at home: the price has dropped significantly since 2021, during a time we’ve seen most other media rights sales increase, and it was the right call to pair the women’s basketball championship with other sports because… the fee went up significantly (though less than it would have if sold separately).

All of which brings us back to the WNBA. We still don’t know exactly what it means for the WNBA’s price tag, but we do know that the top of the women’s sports market has now been set, by both another league as well as a more-watched event in women’s basketball, at $60-65 million per year. That’s not ideal for the WNBA in large part because while 100% of the revenue for those other two entities are returned to the NCAA and NWSL, respectively, WNBA teams own approximately 42 percent of themselves, thanks to the ownership structure which includes both the 50% belonging to the NBA (now also around 42 percent) and the roughly 16% of the league sold for a capital raise of $75 million back in 2020.

Put another way: a team’s 1/12 share of a $100 million annual rights fee wouldn’t be 1/12 of $100 million. It would be 1/12 of 42 percent of $100 million.

And this is a rights deal that needs to do a lot of heavy lifting for Engelbert and the league. The upcoming expected optout of the current CBA by the players, a potential way forward on travel, expansion plans generally (and without a current fourteenth team to provide an additional cash infusion of expansion fee) means the course and level of growth the WNBA is capable of will be largely dictated by the size of the new media rights deal.

What no one can really argue, whatever the reasons why: ESPN and the NCAA got in a room and made a decision that cost women’s basketball money. And if the new deal is treated as a ceiling and a comp for the WNBA negotiations ahead, not just women’s college basketball.

This week in women’s basketball

Mitch Northam writes on the Caitlin Clark phenomenon.

Get to know Arizona freshman Skylar Jones.

A homecoming for Becky Hammon.

UCLA, knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten.

Do not miss Michelle Smith on Tara.

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Five at The IX: Robyn Fralick, Michigan State

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.