Women’s College Hoops is More Popular Than Men’s?

"Has women's college basketball passed men's college basketball in popularity?"

I've heard this question asked or hinted at several times in various outlets during the college hoops season that just concluded, and it's a fair question to ask. Caitlin Clark was certainly more of a household name this season than any men's player, including Zach Edey. Angel Reese and Paige Bueckers probably were, too. I'd be willing to hear an argument that Dawn Staley and Geno Auriemma are about as well-known as (new Arkansas coach) John Calipari and Bill Self.

Some people think that the TV ratings bonanza for women's basketball that started with Clark and Reese in the 2023 championship game was mostly because of those personalities, and ratings will come back down next year.

I don't agree. I think NIL rules combined with the fact that women's players have to be 22-years-old during their draft year to be picked by the WNBA means that we get to know the players more from playing and marketing perspectives. If NIL came into existence in 2016 instead of 2021, we might think of Sabrina Ionescu and Arike Ogunbowale as two players who took the popularity of the women's game to the next level.

Next season, there's every chance that Bueckers, JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo, and others could take the torch handed off from Clark, Reese, and Cameron Brink.

But an even better question than wondering if the women's college game is bigger than the men's is, "Does it matter if the women's game is bigger than the men's?"

As someone who watched tons of each tournament in March and April, I can safely say that fans don't have to choose between the two. But we can also recognize each product for what it is and isn't.

For example, men's hoops doesn't feature most of the very elite American talent aged 22 or younger. It hasn't since at least the early-to-mid 2000s. But now it serves a great purpose for late bloomers and borderline draft talent. On the other hand, the aforementioned WNBA draft rules mean that top talent sticks around in the NCAA for at least three years, and often four. Fans — both men and women — can often remember the names they saw in the previous year's women's tournament and know that those players are the best of the best.

One thing I haven't heard mentioned a lot in various outlets is that, while each NCAA tournament is a 68-team, single-elimination event, the tournaments often unfold in very different ways that ends up affecting interest in the later rounds.

In this year's women's tournament, there were two seed upsets of any significance in 67 games — Middle Tennessee (a mid-major power in its own right) defeating Louisville in the first round and Duke winning at Ohio State in the second round. That was it! If you started watching the women's tournament in the Sweet 16, you didn't miss much. But that also meant that every game after the Sweet 16 had major intrigue and high seeds squaring off.

In this year's men's tournament, we had the historical anomaly of the best two teams all season facing off in the national title game. Last year, when the LSU/Iowa title game began to approach the same viewership numbers of the men's championship, it came during a Final Four where no top-three seed made the final weekend for the men.

In other words, the women's tournament feels almost guaranteed to have a clash of the titans and star players battling for the championship. The current era of slightly increased parity in men's hoops means it's not a sure thing — but the fundamentals of competitiveness still make the first weekend of men's March Madness some of the best days on the sports calendar.

Ultimately, I feel like we can look at another sport for what the future of college basketball might hold: tennis. For my entire lifetime, a Grand Slam tennis tournament like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open has had the feeling of general parity between the men's and women's game.

Sometimes, or even in some entire eras, one product is better, or one set of tournaments provides more action early on. But the television coverage uses the same graphics and updates the viewer on each side of the draw concurrently. No one has to make one more popular or more exciting than the other — fans usually watch both. And I've absolutely enjoyed watching two excellent March Madness tournaments in March and April as a fan of the game of basketball.

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