Landmark deal with ESPN to boost broad range of NCAA sports

ESPN used its exclusive negotiating window to reach an eight-year, $920-million deal with the NCAA on Thursday, an arrangement that extends a relationship that began when ESPN was launched in 1979 and has proved lucrative for both parties since.

The new contract — worth $115 million a year — proves that even in a fragmented media landscape, content is king and college sports draw a significant, and growing, television audience on cable and through streaming.

The agreement is worth roughly three times the annual value of the current deal, and the NCAA said production and marketing costs assumed by ESPN would add another $25 million to $30 million per year. Slightly more than half the money — about $65 million a year — will go to women’s basketball, which despite discussions of the sport cutting its own deal remained in the bundle.

The largest audience for a women’s college basketball game was last year’s NCAA championship game between LSU and Iowa, and the same was true for the women’s volleyball final in December between Texas and Nebraska. The basketball game drew nearly 10 million viewers on ESPN+.

The NCAA and ESPN announced that the agreement will take effect Sept. 1, run through 2032 and include 40 NCAA championships — 21 women’s and 19 men’s. Among the increasingly popular sports besides women’s basketball and volleyball are baseball and softball.

Many of the events will be aired on ABC, which, like ESPN, is owned by Walt Disney Co. More than 2,300 hours of NCAA championships will appear on combined linear and digital platforms annually, ESPN said.

The NCAA and ESPN moved quickly to come to an agreement before other potential suitors could join the fray. ESPN had exclusive negotiating rights through the summer.

“The NCAA has worked in earnest over the past year to ensure that this new broadcast agreement provides the best possible outcome for all NCAA championships, and in particular women’s championships,” NCAA President Charlie Baker said in a statement. “Over the past several years, ESPN has demonstrated increased investment in NCAA championship coverage.”

The negotiations were the first since ESPN and the NCAA agreed to a 12-year, $500-million deal in 2011. A clear strategy for the NCAA was to place as many sports as possible on the same platform. The package includes championships in Division I men’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s tennis, as well as Division II and Division III men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball.

“Having one multiplatform home to showcase our championships provides additional growth potential along with a greater experience for the viewer and our student-athletes,” Baker said.

Dealing directly with the NCAA rather than conferences appears to be ESPN’s strategy. The network declined to bail out the Pac-12 with a deal that might have kept the conference from all but disbanding, and also passed on a Big Ten media rights deal, which ultimately was divided among Fox, CBS and NBC.

An exception is the 10-year deal that ESPN cut with the behemoth SEC in December that made the network the exclusive rights holder of the conference’s football and men’s basketball telecasts. Next up for ESPN could be renewing the rights to the College Football Playoff. The current deal ends in two years.

Disney executives Jimmy Pitaro and Bob Iger have indicated a desire to partner with one or more tech companies as ESPN transitions into a sports streaming giant. Locking down a broad range of NCAA content might increase the appeal.

“ESPN and the NCAA have enjoyed a strong and collaborative relationship for more than four decades, and we are thrilled that it will continue as part of this new, long-term agreement,” Pitaro said in a statement. “The ESPN networks and platforms will exclusively present a record number of championships, including all rounds of several marquee events that, together with the NCAA, we have grown over time.”

Missing from the contract is the most lucrative NCAA tentpole event: the Division I men’s basketball tournament, a.k.a. March Madness. Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery have a deal with the NCAA for the event that extends through 2032 and pays nearly $900 million a year to broadcast the games on CBS and the Turner cable networks.

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