With the far-lesser treatment of the women’s teams in the 2021 NCAA Tournament bubble compared to the men’s, you’d think there would be a much more limited market for women’s basketball amongst the general public.
But it looks like you’d be wrong.
The 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament was an unqualified success. The TV ratings skyrocketed with the Final Four drawing 2.2 million viewers, up 22% over 2019, and the national championship increasing 10.5% to 4.08 million.
Meanwhile ratings for men’s March Madness came down. The national semifinals fell 14% to 11.81 million, and the championship game was off a staggering 37% from 2019 to just 8.18 million viewers.
And with the growth of the women’s game, it’s time for bookmakers across the globe to respond in-kind as well. In 2021, bookmakers and operators need to start offering lines on regular season women’s college basketball, not just the NCAA Tournament.
The women’s game has come so far thanks to nearly 50 years of Title IX and the improving skills and development of younger players. Go back and watch UConn’s 1995 NCAA Championship win vs. Tennessee, and with all the deserved respect in the world to the legends like Rebecca Lobo, Jen Rizzotti, and Nykesha Sales, they’d get their butts kicked by the entire Top 25 today.
It’s just a better product now, with full-blown superstars that have huge social media followings, and really entertaining high-quality play at the top levels. And that interest means people are going to want to bet on these games.
And for sure the lines available have responded in-kind. It wasn’t that long ago where the Women’s Final Four would be the only place you could get action, and that might be for very small limits in Las Vegas only. This year for the first time DraftKings Sportsbook posted a spread on all 32 first round NCAA Tournament games. It’s a big step forward, but now it’s time for more growth among all the major sportsbooks, including DraftKings.
(If you’re asking “hey Collin, don’t you work for DraftKings??” Well actually, no. Vox Media launched this site in partnership with DraftKings. I am a Vox Media employee, so consider this literally just one man’s opinion. It is worth noting DraftKings Sportsbook has been responsive to pushes for more betting options on women’s basketball.)
For the sport to take that next leap, it has to be given platforms that increase visibility upon which to succeed. That means better television time slots (hey Disney, put the Final Four on ABC instead of ESPN and see the ratings get even better), greatly-improved officiating (it’s not sexist to say it’s so much worse than the men’s side), and facilities and travel that look more like their male counterparts.
But it’s also time that the general American sports community, of which bookmakers and their customers are a huge faction, to show that the game can succeed and provide value when given the opportunity.
Tracking a sport and hanging lines for it every day is a labor intensive process, and operators will need people that follow teams and games so they can make accurate numbers. That has costs, so we’re not asking for every MEAC and Big West game in December to have a side or a total available at first.
But maybe beginning with the Top 25, or all games between P5 teams, would be a good way to slowly grow the market. There are more tools than ever at the disposal of risk rooms, and there are more bettors than ever with more than two dozen states having legalized betting in some form. It doesn’t hurt that so many states where college sports are a huge part of the culture have been the first to open licensed sports betting outfits.
Having spreads and totals would be a huge step forward for a sport that has plenty of room to grow. Let’s face it: Not everyone is watching Thursday night MAC football on ESPN for the beauty of spread offenses, as there’s a lot of people with a financial interest in the outcome. Putting up spreads gets more casual fans watching their alma maters, local schools, and sometimes teams in which they’d have no interest otherwise. And that’s a win-win for both the sport and the bookmaker.
Of course the NCAA needs to do more. Fighting for a bigger platform in their new TV deal, and continuing to improve the conditions for women’s athletes should be a priority. They claim to be working on the ref problem already. But there’s only so much that can come from Indianapolis.
The game has grown too much to be denied now, and the players need to be treated just as the men are off the court wherever possible. And that includes fans and backers hoping they cover as the seconds tick down.
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