The new NCAA-ESPN broadcast deal didn’t guarantee it a primetime spot, but that doesn’t mean the Women’s College World Series can’t make it there.
Late last week, the NCAA announced a new eight-year deal with ESPN to broadcast the championships of more than three dozen sports.
Softball was among them.
The deal included a guarantee to air several women’s finals on ABC.
Softball was not among them.
But that doesn’t mean a game or two of the Women’s College World Series championship series couldn’t be broadcast on ABC. There’s a clear opportunity for it to happen, not to mention a couple of good reasons for it.
Now, before we go any further, a quick point of clarity: ESPN has moved the broadcast of select WCWS games to ABC each of the past two years. Two years ago, a single game from the second weekend of the tournament was broadcast on network TV, a first for the WCWS. A year ago, two games from that second weekend went on ABC.
The games were not part of the championship series, but still, having WCWS games on ABC was a big milestone for college softball.
So, too, was the viewership garnered by the championship series between OU and Florida State. Won in two games by the Sooners, the series had an average of 1.6 million viewers, including 1.9 million in the second and deciding game with a peak of 2.3 million viewers.
Those numbers are less than the women’s basketball championship — last year’s title game between LSU and Iowa drew 9.9 million viewers on ABC, the most ever for a women’s college basketball game — but softball outpaces volleyball and gymnastics.
Last month, the volleyball championship won by Texas drew 1.69 million viewers with a peak of 2.1 million.
Last April, the women’s gymnastics championship won by OU drew 1.02 million viewers with a peak of 1.32 million.
Both were all-time highs for the sports. (Volleyball made a particularly big jump in its first year on ABC, easily surpassing its previous high of 1.2 million viewers despite starting at 2 p.m. on a Sunday during the NFL season.)
Both of those record-setting championships were broadcast on ABC. Viewers didn’t need to have a cable or streaming subscription to see the championship, and the results were record-breaking audiences. More people than ever saw the sports, the athletes, the excellence.
Softball deserves a similar opportunity with its championship.
Why didn’t it get a guarantee of one in the new contract?
The short answer: timing.
Unlike volleyball and women’s gymnastics which hold their championships on the weekend, softball’s championship series happens during the week. Opening up prime-time spots for softball on a weeknight is different from a Saturday or Sunday afternoon for volleyball and women’s gymnastics.
Could the WCWS schedule be shifted to get the championship series on the weekend? It’d be a huge change, but just last year, the NCAA altered the tournament schedule for the first time in many moons, giving teams more rest days and responding to calls from softball leaders to reform for the betterment of the sport.
Championship series games on network TV could certainly better the sport.
But honestly, the tournament schedule wouldn’t have to be rearranged if the WCWS and ESPN/ABC wanted to give it a try. They could do a one-game trial run, and they could do it this year.
As the tournament schedule sits now, the first game of the championship series falls on June 5. It’s before the start of the NBA Finals, which are also broadcast on ABC, and it’s a Wednesday, not a sought-after night in Network TV Land. (Lots of Wednesday night shows average between 1.5 million and 2.5 million viewers.) Start the game at 7 p.m. Oklahoma time — 8 p.m. on the East Coast where sports fans are more used to games starting later and 5 p.m. on the West Coast where sports fans are more used to games starting earlier — and see what happens.
Maybe it would bomb, but that sure would go against the trend of recent years.
My guess: the broadcast would average at least 2.3 million viewers and might peak at around 3 million viewers.
Those would be good numbers on a Wednesday night for ABC and huge numbers for softball.
It’s a bummer that the NCAA’s new deal with ESPN didn’t guarantee the softball championship a spot on ABC, but here’s the good news: the deal didn’t prohibit it either.