INDIANAPOLIS — ESPN saw a ratings increase for the women's NCAA basketball championship game in March and decided it had a winner.
On Thursday, ESPN and the NCAA announced they had agreed to an 11-year contract worth more than $200 million to televise 21 collegiate national championships.
The big winner was the women's basketball tournament.
"It is a premier event and it is growing in stature," ESPN president George Bodenheimer said. "By having the tournament exclusively, we think it fuels the growth."
That became apparent in March when television ratings increased by 10 percent to 2.6, an ESPN official said Thursday, and led the network to agree to a deal that will have it broadcast all 63 women's tournament games.
ESPN also will televise a special show from the open practices at the women's Final Four.
The 7-year, $19-million contract that expires in 2002 required a minimum 23 women's tournament games to be televised.
"The committee as well as the NCAA was very interested in getting the best deal we could for the growth of the game," said Maryalyce Jeremiah, head of the NCAA women's basketball committee. "We think we did that."
The contract might also force some scheduling changes.
If approved by the NCAA Division I Championships-Competition Cabinet, the women's Final Four would move to a Sunday-Tuesday format. Currently, the Final Four is played on Friday and Sunday.
First- and second-round games also could move, from a Friday and Saturday to a Saturday-Sunday schedule, and regional finals would be spread over two days instead of playing all four on one day — as is done now.
Jeremiah said those changes would be good for the game.
"Changing the days still has to be confirmed and go through the legislative process," she said. "But we felt changing the days would add enhancement to our coverage."
Neither Bodenheimer nor NCAA president Cedric Dempsey said how much the women's tournament was worth by itself.
Dempsey said that while CBS Sports made a financial bid, it offered no coverage plan. CBS carries the men's tournament.
The women's tournament is only part of the NCAA package.
ESPN also will televise the final two games of the College World Series, which were previously aired by CBS.
The agreement also calls for expanded coverage of the Women's College World Series and the possibility of televising the Division II women's basketball tournament live, if the game is moved from Saturday to Friday.
ESPN now has television rights for Division I championships in men's ice hockey, men's and women's indoor track, men's and women's soccer, men's and women's swimming and diving, men's and women's tennis, men's and women's volleyball, men's lacrosse, men's gymnastics, softball and wrestling. CBS Sports carries the men's and women's outdoor track championships.
ESPN also will televise football championships in Division I-AA, II and III. The network, which has the option of renegotiating after eight years, believes the deal will create more than 200 hours of coverage per year.