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Jimmy Pitaro admits growth of women’s sports makes ESPN rights retentions more difficult

Network chairman says WNBA and NCAA championships value increases are ‘high-class problem.’

1 June 2023 Josh Sim

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  • NCAA’s rights deal with ESPN is set to expire in 2024
  • WNBA will seek increase on current rights agreement that ends in 2025

ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro has admitted the Disney-owned sports network may find it more difficult to retain its current slate of women’s sports programming.

The sports broadcaster currently shows numerous National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) college championships as part of an agreement reportedly worth US$500 million. According to Bloomberg, the agreement sees the network pays US$34 million a year to show about 20 women’s NCAA sports, including basketball. The rights deal with the NCAA is set to expire at the end of the 2023/24 college sports season.

Earlier this year, a record 9.9 million viewers watched Louisiana State University (LSU) win the women’s March Madness final on ABC. A report commissioned by the NCAA in 2021 suggested that the basketball tournament’s rights alone could be worth about US$100 million a year.

Meanwhile, ESPN also is a main broadcast partner of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), with the current contract to expire in 2025. The league will reportedly be paid US$33 million by the broadcaster in the agreement’s final year, with Disney showing 25 games nationwide across its ESPN and ABC channels this season.

The league is targeting a major increase for its next media rights deal, with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert telling The Athletic that its newest TV deal with Scripps was “an absolutely positive sign” ahead of negotiations. Its popularity continues to grow considerably, with the Las Vegas Aces’ opening weekend win over the Seattle Storm the league’s most viewed opening weekend game in 11 years.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Pitaro admitted that the network’s expanded promotion of both properties will increase pressure to spend more to retain their rights.

“We know that the more we invest, the more we grow the leagues, the harder it’s going to be for us to renew,” Pitaro said. “From my perspective, that’s a high-class problem.

“We know we can’t have everything. We may not have the same exact properties as we have today. We will continue to do the deals that make the most sense for ESPN and Disney.”

As well as the WNBA and March Madness, Pitaro noted that ESPN televised about 200 regular-season women’s college softball games, with a further 2,6000 available on digital platforms. Disney’s head of advertising Rita Ferro also told Bloomberg that it has about a thousand advertisers supporting women’s sports, covering a range of properties.

SportsPro says…

Pitaro’s comments indicate that ESPN faces difficult decisions down the line when it comes to choosing which women’s sport properties to retain. The Women’s March Madness tournament in particular has been hugely successful for the network, with Disney reporting before this year’s edition that its ad inventory had sold out on ESPN platforms. With viewership for the competition also at an all-time high, the broadcaster will be keen to retain its rights going forward, especially given that rivals such as Fox and NBC also have moved into the women’s college basketball space.

The increased TV ratings for the WNBA over recent years also make the league a valuable property for the network. Even events such as the WNBA draft have seen an uptick in viewership, highlighting the growing appetite fans have for the league and its players. However, whether it can juggle retaining its rights remains to be seen, given the likes of Amazon and CBS may also want a bigger rights package for the competition. Still, ESPN has used other initiatives to help grow interest in the league, with Pitaro noting the network’s role in introducing the WNBA’s first fantasy league.

With more broadcasters increasing its coverage of women’s sports, ESPN will face a tough fight to retain the status quo, especially while also engaging in a potential bidding war for the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) media rights and seeking to cut costs across its operations.

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