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Coverage and resources for women's basketball lag behind the surge in fan support

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is officially March Madness. Both the men and women's NCAA basketball tournaments are underway. The men's first round started yesterday, the women's today. Now, a data point here - last year, the women's final game was the most watched in nearly two decades. Viewership for the women's tournament overall was up 16% from the year before. So a surge in attention from fans, less of a surge when it comes to media coverage and resources for players. Joining me now is Chantel Jennings. She's senior writer for women's basketball for The Athletic. Hey there.

CHANTEL JENNINGS: Hey, Mary Louise. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. Would you agree with what I just said, that it seems like fans are up for this, that there is growing interest in women's college basketball?

JENNINGS: Absolutely. I think just if you look at - the numbers obviously back that up. I'm someone who lives part of my professional life on Twitter. Just the following that has happened there, the NIL deals, the name, image and likeness deals that have happened for women's basketball players over the last two years - all of it speaks to the growing popularity of the sport.

KELLY: The NIL - this is college athletes can now make money off their name, their image, their likeness. That's across college sports. Why has it impacted women's basketball?

JENNINGS: Speaking with a lot of experts, you know, coming into it, the main thing was that women, specifically college-aged women, are really good at social media. They have a knack for TikTok. They have a knack for Instagram. And so they've sort of been able to harness that at a time when so much of companies' marketing schemes and plans have sort of gone to social. And that's where a lot of college-aged women are.

KELLY: Are there other factors at play here, other reasons why people might be paying more attention to the women's game?

JENNINGS: One adage that I've always said, sort of inspired by a very famous movie, is if you broadcast it, people will watch. We've seen more and more broadcasted games for the women's tournament, for the women's season overall. They've been put more on sort of the higher networks, the main ESPN instead of sort of ESPNews or ESPN2. This will actually be the first time in almost 20 years that the national championship game is broadcast on ABC or a main network instead of being on cable. And that matters a lot because that's another 40 million households or so across the US. And so you're just seeing more of these games being put in a place where people can consume them.

KELLY: What about resources? I'm remembering that scandal a couple of years ago when images that made the rounds on social media showed this massive disparity in the size of the weight room that athletes could use during March Madness. The men had this big, fully stocked weight room. And the women's was like - it was puny, I think it's fair to say.

JENNINGS: Mary Louise, I think puny is a very kind way to put what the NCAA had done.

KELLY: What word would you use?

JENNINGS: They had, I believe - nonexistent, probably. They had - I think it was one stack of dumbbells, like, four different weights. And then my favorite part was that it was, like, 11 yoga mats, which isn't even enough for a full team. Like, they didn't even provide enough yoga mats so that everyone on the team could do yoga if that's what they wanted to do. The main thing that we really need to talk about, though, is sort of the TV broadcast rights. And those are coming up again for the women's tournament. The main difference here is that the men's tournament has been sold on its own for the last, you know, several decades, whereas the women's NCAA tournament has been packaged with 28 other championships since it was sold to ESPN two decades ago.

And so the women in this way really haven't been able to capitalize on that success, on that growing popularity that we were just talking about because it's been packaged with track and field championships, gymnastics championships, softball and baseball championships. There was the Kaplan report that came out in the wake of that weight room scandal that suggested that the women's tournament alone would be worth somewhere between 81 and $112 million in TV broadcast rights. Its current deal right now with ESPN, with the 28 other championships, is just $34 million a year.

KELLY: Chantal Jennings covers women's basketball for The Athletic. Thank you.

JENNINGS: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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