In a year that’s seen dwindling viewership across men’s sports, women’s sports seem to be hitting new highs.
Sunday’s thriller between Stanford and Arizona was yet another example of this trend. The championship game drew nearly 4.1 million viewers — the largest audience for a final since 2014, when UConn and Notre Dame squared off, pulling in 4.27 million viewers.
This year’s ratings are somewhat surprising, considering both Stanford and Arizona are from the same power(ish) five conference and on the West Coast. They’re also not UConn, and that meant the final lacked the perennial powerhouse and its featured freshman superstar Paige Bueckers. The game did showcase Aari McDonald, though, who was also must-see TV throughout the tourney.
But the TV success of the 2021 Women’s tournament didn’t start on Easter Sunday. For the first time since 1995, Women’s March Madness was featured on broadcast TV. And that helped. (Shocking, I know. Makes you wonder what took so long.) A first-round game between Tennessee and Middle Tennessee on ABC brought in the largest opening round audience since 2010. The UConn-Iowa third-round game, also on ABC, boosted viewership 129 percent from the Huskies’ last Sweet 16 appearance in 2019.
The UConn-Baylor clash in the Elite 8 was on ESPN. But it was still the most-watched non-Final Four matchup in 10 years.
The tournament’s viewership success follows a pattern of women’s sports performing well in the ratings. Last fall, the NWSL said they grew their TV audience by 500 percent. The WNBA Finals were also up 15 percent from the previous year.
This year’s women’s tournament will be known for its wire-to-wire finishes, star power, that missed call and, of course, the obvious disparity in resources from their male counterparts. Despite that injustice, viewership numbers broke records and that’s worth watching, too.