The 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Flipped Narratives

The NCAA Division I basketball tournament, or March Madness as fans call it, has been a spectacle in the sports world since it moved to its gargantuan 64-team format in 1982 on the men’s side and 1994 on the women’s side. Its sheer size has led to some of the most shocking and unexpected outcomes of any postseason format in sports and draws millions of viewers without fail every season.

But 2023’s edition of March Madness presented a surprise that went far beyond the hardwood. For the first time in my experience as a basketball fan, the hype around the women’s tournament rivaled and surpassed, at times, that of the men’s tournament.

To get an idea of just how shocking that realization was, context of just how much more publicity the men’s tournament currently garners is necessary. In a year where the men’s title game had its worst viewership and the women’s title game had its best, the men’s final still drew over five million more viewers on average than the women’s.

Despite the gap, there were moments throughout the month when the women’s tournament held the nation’s attention captive. One of the most potent moments saw Iowa star Caitlin Clark notch a tournament-first 40-point triple-double in the Elite Eight.

The respect she received from basketball fans on social media was a far cry from the usual disparaging comments women’s basketball has seemed to elicit from viewers for years. Purely on the basis of gender, the women’s game has been on the end of an incalculable number of baseless jokes which seek to discount the talent of players  over the years, also over social media.

But the performances from some of the best players in the tournament diffused those misled attacks. Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith, a Washington native, averaged over 23 points per game in the tournament. Thanks to her status as one of the most prolific high school basketball players in state history, Van Lith drew massive crowds to each of her two games at Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena.

The tournament also featured a level of parity and unpredictability that has been missing in recent years. Ninth-seeded Miami was the “Cinderella” of the tournament, breaking brackets with close wins over first-seeded Indiana and fourth-seeded Villanova. From there, 2023 marked the first time since 2011 and the third time ever in the current format that the championship game did not feature a one-seed from any region in the women’s bracket.

The championship game, featuring No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 Louisiana State (LSU) was the most viewed women’s collegiate game on record, and for good reason.

Caitlin Clark, a junior guard, willed her team to the championship game, averaging over 31 points and 10 assists on a consistent 42.6% from 3-point range for Iowa in the tournament. She was an instant draw for any potential viewer.

Her game also stands out from the typical collegiate setting. Typically, college teams prioritize balanced team scoring, fundamental ball-handling and what traditional basketball fans call “good looks,” most of which are layups or open 3-pointers. Clark has toyed with those norms in all her three seasons with the Hawkeyes, averaging 27 points per game in her career–an unreal level of production for a single college player. But when considering Clark is also taking shots from well past the 3-point arc, often contested, she truly stands out from the talent in the NCAA’s talent hierarchy.

Opposite Clark was LSU’s Angel Reese.

Reese, a junior forward, was the perfect adversary to Clark, prioritizing fundamentals and playing close to the basket. The Maryland transfer led all of college basketball in offensive rebounds and her tenacity helped bring an upstart LSU basketball program back into contention. Reese’s tournament averages of 21 points and 15 rebounds earned her the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award after a dominant 102-85 win over Clark’s Hawkeyes in the championship game.

The stars of the tournament created a captivating basketball product and the record-breaking attendance and viewership proved their effectiveness in generating hype.

So, what does this all mean for women’s basketball?


Both the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and NCAA women’s basketball have potentially lucrative decisions to make in the next few seasons. The WNBA’s most prominent current broadcast deal with ESPN, worth about $25 million per year, will expire in 2025. Similarly, the NCAA women’s tournament’s deal with ESPN will end after the next tournament.

After record ratings in this year’s women’s tournament and the 2022 WNBA Playoffs, both organizations will have more leverage to pursue more diverse and lucrative broadcasting options when negotiations reopen.

Better yet, the best talent of NCAA in Reese, Clark, Van Lith and Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers are all projected to land at the top of next year’s WNBA Draft.

As this year’s NCAA Tournament has proven, a healthy catalog of household names may provide a similar boost to the notoriety of the WNBA in the coming years.