Did You See the Oregon Upset? Probably Not.

Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu
Image via University of Oregon Athletics

There were 11 college basketball tournaments over the 2019 Thanksgiving holiday weekend, many of which were televised. ESPN boasted airing 80 games and eight ranked teams during that time. None of the nationally televised games featured women’s teams, including a huge Louisville upset over the No. 1 ranked (at the time) Oregon, featuring phenom Sabrina Ionescu, in the Paradise Jam tournament.  

Not being able to watch marquee matchups, and the upset of a No. 1 team by a No. 8 team, brought the lack of media coverage of women’s college basketball to many people’s attention.

Karen Weaver, EdD, an associate clinical professor in the Sport Management program of the LeBow College of Business, spoke with the Drexel News Blog about the economics behind these broadcast decisions. 

Can you give some background on the broadcast media landscape for women’s college basketball?

Women’s basketball has historically been a “throw-in” property when schools were negotiating media rights deals directly with broadcasters. Typically, broadcasters will ask for a selection of high-profile men’s games (usually football and basketball). Conferences and schools then ask for coverage of other sports (like women’s basketball) in exchange for signing the contract.

With the advent of conference channels and streaming services (like the Big Ten and Pac-12 networks), more women’s content is now produced for consumer consumption, creating a cornucopia of content that now has to be delivered to multiple platforms.

An example such as the Pac-12, home of the two No. 1 women’s basketball programs in the month of November (Oregon and Stanford), shows how many cable, satellite and streaming services are involved in delivering that content nationwide.

How does this practice playout for early season tournament games being televised?

The men’s basketball tournaments held over Thanksgiving in Nassau, Bahamas, Lahaina, Hawaii and Orlando, Florida (just to name a few) were likely coordinated by tournament officials especially for ESPN. These tournaments create a perfect way to generate lots of early season buzz around men’s basketball and gin up the ratings for the beginning of the season.

Further, they may have been created just to give content to ESPN, as a number of men’s tournament games were scheduled all weekend on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. I don’t doubt that many people in the women’s game would have been happy to have their games televised too.  

So, where does that leave women’s basketball? Despite the fact that there were a number of women’s tournaments happening at the same time (in lovely places like San Juan, Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, Virgin Islands), without a national broadcaster willing to spend the kinds of dollars to produce those games (a typical basketball game can cost $30,000+ to produce), ESPN and other linear channels were not willing to forgo the men’s games to cover the women’s games. And, if a game is not played on a campus that has full scale production capabilities (see the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12), then the equipment and crew have to be brought in as freelancers.

Can streaming services fill the gaps left by traditional broadcasters?

Advertising and promotion need to happen to drive viewers and provide advertising, and those tournaments often are one and done type arrangements. Companies like FloSports and Vimeo are willing to leverage their expertise in distribution via streaming, but someone still needs to pay the production crew and recruit advertisers.

Simply stated, despite those outstanding women’s games not being seen by nearly anyone (including me), the economics just didn’t work. In fact, when the Paradise Jam matchups were announced in May 2019, FloHoops was identified as the only video partner for the eight team, high profile tournament, despite the fact that Oregon started the season as the No. 1 team – leaving six months for the market to react, which it didn’t.

This will continue to be an issue with streaming—fans will continue to have to pay monthly fees to get bits and pieces of sports they love. That’s the reality of where we are today.

What can be done to change the lack of coverage?

It is an economic issue—not a women’s sports issue. If the number of viewers and advertising revenues are there, the broadcasters will follow. The only way it will change is if broadcasters are willing to spend more money and likely earn less profit just to do the right thing.

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