March Madness is All About Women's Basketball in 2024

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After years in the men’s teams shadows, women’s basketball is finally having its moment.

“We’ve been on a steady incline,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb told The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach on herSiriusXM show on Sunday night. “You combine the star power in our game, the fact that you have some of these established stars that fans have really built a relationship with like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink — and then you add in this incredibly dynamic freshman class. What we’re seeing is that women’s basketball is a really marketable entity. People love it. We’re in a space where there’s an incredible amount of excitement around it. … It’s something that’s, really, a movement.”

And there’s numbers to prove the excitement is leading to record viewership. ESPN recently announced that the 2023-2024 women’s college basketball regular season broke records, as the most-watched regular season on ESPN platforms since 2009, with viewers watching more than 2.6 billion total minutes of live women’s college basketball games. This year’s season was also the most-watched women’s college basketball ever on ESPN+, and the ACC Network and SEC Network each saw their best women’s college basketball regular season on record.

It was a season filled with thrilling action and record-shattering performances. Iowa star Caitlin Clark broke the women’s Big Ten, NCAA and major-college career scoring records, also surpassing former LSU star Pete Maravich for the most points in Division I history, men’s or women’s.

Last year, the NCAA women’s basketball national championship game was the most-watched women’s basketball game ever, in part because of the rivalry between Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese of Louisiana State University. The game was not without controversy: the pair’s lighthearted rivalry turned controversial when clips of Reese’s hand gestures (apparently borrowed from John Cena’s pro-wrestling days) went viral. The moment prompted ongoing discourse about the ways in which criticism of Reese, who is Black, was racially-charged and indicative of racial disparities in the sport more generally.

This year marks Clark’s final NCAA tournament, sparking further interest in the bracket match-ups, which were just released this week. The tournament is expected to be an even bigger ratings blockbuster, especially if Clark succeeds in spearheading Iowa’s Hawkeyes to the Final Four.

The dynamic storylines don’t end there. JuJu Watkins, a powerhouse freshman (ESPN’s National Freshman of the Year) with an unguardable step-back has been instrumental in USC's outstanding season, scoring in 26 of the 30 games in which she's played while adding to her USC record (male or female) with 13 games with 30 or more points scored. USC is one of two Southern California women’s teams hosting the first two rounds of the tournament, with UCLA tapping in as a No. 2 seed to USC’s No. 1. Notably, the men’s teams losing records for both USC and UCLA shut them out of the brackets this year.

The buzz surrounding this year’s women’s match-ups is a monumental shift not solely in terms of viewership but in the cultural standing of women’s basketball at the collegiate level and beyond. Just two years ago, the NCAA did not even include the women’s tournament in “March Madness,” deeming it part of the marketing umbrella together with men’s college basketball for the first time in 2022. While the NCAA did not have explicit barriers limiting women’s basketball from utilizing the branded moniker, senior leadership described being told that using “March Madness” logos and branding for women’s basketball was “off-limits” and it was not marketed as such in social media and online.

During the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association created a campaign that year called OurFairShot to highlight the disparities among the NCAA’s treatment toward the women’s tournament in contrast to men’s and pressure the NCAA to take steps to rectify these inequities. As a result, in September 2021, the NCAA announced that it would use the March Madness branding for the 2022 championship season.

These steps, however impactful they may be, are still only small strides to level a highly unequal playing field in basketball and in sports universally. The U.S. women's soccer team now has an equal split of World Cup bonuses and prize money, but overall, women still earn only a fraction of men’s final pay. Many teams continue to fight to even receive agreed-upon payment, equipment, training, and travel. As the profile of women’s sports continues to rise, it’s clear there’s still a long way to go.

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue