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For the second year in a row, the first and second rounds of women’s March Madness have set an NCAA attendance record, according to a tweet from the NCAA March Madness official account.
This year’s total attendance of 231, 777 tops last year’s 216,890, the first year the women’s tournament was allowed to use the March Madness logo and marketing. The previous high was 214,290, set in 2004.
Viewership on ESPN’s networks was also up 27% for the first two rounds with an average of 257,000 per game. Tennessee’s game against St. Louis had the most viewers at 639,000, followed by UConn’s game against Vermont with 636,000 viewers.
Parity in women’s basketball was evident with upsets in a number of games. Ninth-seeded Miami upset #1 Indiana 70-68, and 8-seed Ole Miss defeated 1-seed Stanford 54-49. Six-seed Colorado bested three-seed Duke 61-53.
Perennial women’s basketball powerhouse UConn made its 29th Sweet 16 in a row. Defending national champion South Carolina returns for its ninth Sweet 16 out of the past 10. The Gamecocks also won the championship in 2017.
Rounding out the bracket are UCLA, Maryland, Notre Dame, Louisville, Iowa, Utah, LSU, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Villanova, and Ohio State. This will be only the second Sweet 16 visit for both Villanova and Virginia Tech, and the third for Utah.
Unlike the men’s tournament which plays at neutral sites, the women’s tournament plays the first two rounds on the home courts of the top 16 seeded teams. This format has helped grow the fan base for women’s basketball Utah’s coach Lynne Roberts explained to Forbes in an email, “”I think our sport does a great job of creating ways to generate community support and fan experience. Having home host sites has allowed our NCAA Tournament to grow from a fan standpoint, engagement standpoint and student-athlete experience. Yes, it is an advantage for the home teams- but it’s an advantage that teams gain throughout their body of an entire season.”
Coach Roberts was just named one of the Top 4 finalists for the 2023 Werner Ladder Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year award. This year she has led the Utes to a 24-7 record so far, breaking into the top five in rankings twice this season and spending the past 12 weeks ranked in the top 10. She has also led the team to its first Pac-12 regular season title.
First round tournament attendance at Utah was 7,130, and second round attendance was 8,563, their highest numbers of the season with the exception of the regular season final home game against Stanford that had 9,611 in attendance.
Both Iowa and Virginia Tech sold out their venues. Iowa’s crowds at 14,382 at each session were this year’s largest and tied with last year as the third-largest crowds ever for first or second round games.
In a zoom interview with Forbes, veteran women’s basketball broadcaster Brenda VanLengen explained, “Those programs that are having great success on the court are really drawing the attention of fans. I think you’re seeing across the country, as there is more parity in the game and there’s more opportunity for many more teams to advance in the NCAA tournament, fans are becoming more educated. They understand what a big deal it is to host first and second round game, and they know that’s a huge advantage, and so they need to go and support their teams to be able to continue that success.”
For many years, UConn dominated women’s basketball, winning 11 national championships, four of them in a row from 2013-16. In the past decade, however, programs across the country having been growing in strength. While years ago, fans might expect the first-round games with 1-seeds playing 16-seeds and 2-seeds playing 15-seeds to be blowouts, that’s not the case anymore. Certainly, about 20 teams regularly appear in the Top 25, but that’s no longer a guarantee for a Sweet 16 berth come March Madness.
This year, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, and the parity we’re seeing in women’s college hoops is one of the consequences of the legislation’s demand for equitable treatment of girls and women in schools. As girls have had greater access to training, coaches, practice facilities, and higher levels of competition at earlier ages, women coming into college are now ready to play a stronger, faster, better game.
Sports analyst and former NCAA and WNBA star Tamika Catchings told Forbes in a phone interview, “I think that March Madness the last couple of years has been phenomenal. I think people just gravitate to that. The game that these women are playing, they’re good. We have really good games. A lot of people get drawn into the games, and that’s a huge plus. We don’t have too many true blowouts, and I think when people watch they get excited.”
What we’re seeing is the women’s basketball equivalent of “If you build it, they will come.” As Title IX’s investments in girls and women have started to pay off in the level of play, fans have noticed. They’re filling arenas and binging on ESPN’s tournament coverage. Given the number of truly amazing women athletes and the expert coaches in women’s basketball, this trend is likely to continue.
The Sweet 16 starts today. There’s bound to be some good basketball, and, quite possibly, more people will be watching than ever.