18.7 million: Early figures from NCAA women’s title game make it most-watched hoops game in 5 years

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, a Philadelphia native, cuts down the net after the Final Four college basketball championship game against Iowa in the women’s NCAA Tournament, Sunday, April 7, 2024, in Cleveland. South Carolina won 87-75.
AP Photo/Morry Gash

South Carolina’s victory over Caitlin Clark and Iowa in Sunday’s women’s NCAA championship game had a preliminary audience average of 18.7 million on ABC and ESPN. The only sporting events in the United States to draw a bigger TV audience since 2019 have been football, the World Cup and the Olympics.

The audience numbers are expected to increase when Nielsen releases its final numbers on Tuesday. Nielsen says the audience peaked at 24 million.

South Carolina guard Raven Johnson (25) blocks a shot by Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) during the first half of the Final Four college basketball championship game in the women’s NCAA Tournament, Sunday, April 7, 2024, in Cleveland.AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

It’s the most-watched basketball game since 2019, when the men’s NCAA title game between Virginia and Texas Tech averaged 19.6 million on CBS.

Monday night’s men’s final between UConn and Purdue was shown on TBS and TNT. It’s possible that this will be the first year the women’s title game has a bigger audience.

UConn guard Solomon Ball (1) celebrates as time expires during the second half of the NCAA college Final Four championship basketball game against Purdue, Monday, April 8, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz.

The 2015 Final Four game between Wisconsin and Kentucky on TBS is the only college basketball game on cable to draw over 18.7 million. That game averaged 22.63 million.

The 2022 men’s final, which matched Kansas and North Carolina on TBS, averaged 18.1 million.

Clark and Iowa have the three biggest audiences for women’s college basketball. The Hawkeyes’ victory over UConn Friday night averaged 14.2 million, and their April 1 victory over LSU in the Elite Eight, a rematch of last year’s title game, drew 12.3 million.

FILE – Iowa guard Caitlin Clark reacts during a second-round college basketball game against West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 25, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. As Clark has become the face of women’s basketball, her face is everywhere. She has lucrative NIL deals with Nike, Gatorade, Buick and was featured in a State Farm commercial with Jimmy Butler and Reggie Miller.

Clark noted the audience total on X, posting “18. 7 MILLION” with a fire emoji.

The audience for the national title game was up 89% over last year, when Clark and Iowa fell to LSU. And it was 285% bigger than the viewership for the Gamecocks’ title two years ago, when they beat UConn.

The last NBA game to draw at least 18 million was Game 6 of the 2019 Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors (18.34 million).

The women’s final also had the biggest audience for a Sunday afternoon sporting event on ESPN and ABC since Jan. 10, 2021, when an NFL playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans averaged 24.82 million. (ESPN and ABC don’t have the rights to Sunday afternoon NFL games throughout the season, which routinely draw audiences exceeding 25 million on CBS and Fox.)