ESPN’s women’s lacrosse coverage has grown in recent years, but linear TV coverage of the NCAA tournament games has been limited to championship weekend.

Women’s Lacrosse Advocates Push for Equal TV Coverage

When ESPN broadcast the entire NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse tournament for the first time this year, it represented a step forward in coverage of the event. Never had the sports network made every game of the tournament available.

By comparison, just two years ago the early-round games were scattered on various streaming networks affiliated with the host schools, making it difficult for anyone but the sport’s most dedicated fans to find the games. The 2019 semifinals were added late to the ESPN News lineup.

While 2021 was an improvement, the platforms and times for the women’s games were less desirable than the men’s slate. All of the men’s tournament games appeared on linear television, on ESPNU or ESPN2, in separate time blocks with no overlap. The women’s games through the quarterfinals were broadcast only digitally on ESPN3, many with overlapping start times. Their four quarterfinals started at 12 p.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

“The thing that initially stuck out to me when the schedules were announced was, we’re on ESPN, which is awesome,” said Taylor Cummings, a former three-time Tewaaraton Award winner at Maryland and member of the U.S. women’s national team. “And then you read between the lines and you realize that every single men’s game is staggered and covered on television, and the women’s games are streamed and not staggered. That’s where you’re losing visibility. It’s a blatant slap in the face toward equality of coverage.”

USA Lacrosse leadership met last month with Anthony Holman, managing director of championships and alliances for the NCAA, to better understand the dynamics and to see how the organization can be part of a solution. Regarding the streaming-versus-linear television concerns, Holman noted that due to a larger multi-sport contract, ESPN has first right to activate its exclusive broadcast rights for selected preliminary-round games. Since ESPN activated those rights (streaming the games on ESPN3), the NCAA was unable to sell the rights to another network.

Leaders in the women’s game are pushing for additional steps to draw equal to the coverage of the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse championship, a move that will require the cooperation of teams, institutions, the NCAA and media.

“We have to work together if we want to get this done,” said Liz Robertshaw, the executive director of the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association. “It’s not good enough right now because women are not being promoted at the same rate, length or equitably as men have been for years. We’re trying to do it now, but we have a lot of catch-up to do.”

“I don’t think we should be settling for anything less than equal.”

— Taylor Cummings

Each step forward raises more concerns. ESPN’s women’s lacrosse coverage has grown in recent years as it sees potential in the sport. ESPN already is exceeding obligations made to the NCAA in a 14-year contract that runs through 2024.

“Their former deals show their perceived value in women’s athletics,” Robertshaw said. “They made deals that you don’t have to put women’s lacrosse on TV — that you don’t have to have the broadcast, the prime times, the linear space that you do for men’s lacrosse. I think that’s a huge problem.”

ESPN also worked with the NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Committee to hold the women’s and men’s selection special show jointly for the first time. The move gave the women’s a bracket reveal significantly higher visibility than previous years, but the men’s brackets were shown and discussed in their entirety before the women’s brackets were unfurled in the second half of the show after just the top three seeds were introduced earlier.

“There’s a path that all sports go through, whether it’s a men’s or women’s sport,” said Dan Margulis, ESPN’s senior director of college sports programming. “Women’s lacrosse is actually on a pretty accelerated path. When you look at when we started to cover it and where we’re at now and whatever potential we have to be at in the future, it’s a pretty good story. If you’re passionate about it, you want it now. We’re totally on board with that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. It just takes time. We’re pretty proud of what we’ve done this year.”

Equal coverage and promotion are just part of a larger fight for equality across the board, and an even bigger battle for all NCAA women’s sports. The NCAA hired Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP in March to begin evaluating differences between men’s and women’s championship experiences in response to a social media campaign ignited by inequalities seen between the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament facilities and those of their male counterparts.

“Women’s basketball is a premier sport and so it came to light,” Penn women’s lacrosse coach Karin Corbett said. “And then you have softball that has a lot of fans. There’s more women’s sports affected, and we hope we’re given a chance to talk to them and plead our case and create an opportunity that’s equal to the men for these women student-athletes.”

Corbett, Rollins coach Dennis Short, Middlebury coach Kate Livesay and legal counsel Samantha Ekstrand are part of a working cohort the IWLCA formed a month ago to pinpoint inequality issues. IWLCA representatives hope to meet with the Kaplan group as well as the NCAA itself to address their concerns.

“We’re really trying to be targeted about looking at clear inequities and not just saying we feel like this is a problem,” Livesay said. “We’re trying to find out what really exists, what the reality versus perception is. We’re trying to get anecdotal experiences from coaches. We also surveyed the coaching body to see if the things we noted off-hand really are felt across the board? We wanted a full scope of what those things are.”

TV coverage is high on the list.

Broadcasting digitally may be the ultimate future, but it is not yet a sound way to attract new fans to the women’s game. The casual sports consumer at home, in a hotel, airport, restaurant or bar doesn’t have the chance to be introduced to the sport if it’s only a digital broadcast.

“Preferences do not develop in isolation,” said Lindsey Darvin, an assistant professor for sport management at SUNY Cortland who studies diversity and inclusion. “It is highly difficult for folks to become fans of something they’re rarely, if ever, exposed to.”

The semifinals and finals of the NCAA women’s lacrosse tournament were the only games on linear television. Fans objected to the 12 and 2 p.m. Friday afternoon start times for the semifinals, although they did sell out Towson’s Johnny Unitas Stadium, which was limited in capacity due to pandemic restrictions. Two years ago, the women’s semifinals at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field were at a more work- and school-friendly 5 and 7 p.m. The earlier start times this year reflected a tradeoff to getting the games on linear television.

“The more we want to grow, especially on broadcast TV and with our fans and our fan base, those decisions are going to be coming up,” Robertshaw said. “Things that have been talked about are predetermined quarterfinal sites, which women’s lacrosse has never done, but we’re looking at doing that because TV tells you that’s easier. If we’re trying to get on TV, we have to bend.”

The NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Committee allowed institutions and host sites to determine start times when their games were broadcast digitally. Given the choice, many coaches and teams elected early slots, which led to multiple overlaps in the schedule. 

“You could see them all. It’s not like linear, but next year we’d work closer with everybody and say, ‘Let’s not do it that way. Let’s figure out a better plan,’” Margulis said. “Doing a lot of them at the same time, that wasn’t the experience anywhere near what anybody would want it to be.”

Games broadcast on linear television are scheduled by ESPN because they require a set start time and duration. ESPN and the NCAA worked together to determine the best available windows for men’s games, as well as the women’s semifinals and final.

“That’s where we want to get to,” Penn State coach Missy Doherty said. “Tell us when we’re going to play, when people can see us the most. But we still don’t have that major push from the TV side.”

Doherty took on less desirable dates and time slots to get her team on the Big Ten Network this year. She received positive feedback from viewers who enjoyed seeing Penn State play. The ACC Network, which is owned and operated by ESPN, also bolstered its coverage of women’s lacrosse with more than 30 games on linear television, including every game of the ACC tournament.

“It was well received and generated some momentum for the postseason,” said John Kettering, the longtime ESPN producer for college lacrosse and the lead producer for their men’s lacrosse coverage this year. “Although there may not be complete equity, we’re getting there. We’re making strides. I think it was a big win for the women’s sport in the regular season and postseason.”


Penn State women's lacrosse coach Missy Doherty said she tailored dates and game times to when the Nittany Lions could get on the Big Ten Network this spring.

Adding games on linear television and better promotion of women’s lacrosse will draw more fans to the sport, but both men’s and women’s lacrosse have a long way to go if they want to secure the best windows.

This year’s men’s final between Virginia and Maryland averaged 399,000 viewers on ESPN2, the most viewed lacrosse championship game since 2017. The women’s final between Boston College and Syracuse averaged 89,000 viewers on ESPNU, the fifth most-viewed college women’s lacrosse game on an ESPN network.

That pales in comparison to the NCAA Division I softball championship game, which averaged 1.57 million viewers on ESPN, even though it was played on a Thursday afternoon after weather delays had extended the event. The previous two nights’ softball primetime games averaged 1.86 and 2.08 million viewers.

In recent years, women athletes have fostered their own followings organically on social media, and that interest could compel networks to broadcast more, Darvin said.

“The media plays a huge role in how interested folks are in viewing and becoming fans of women’s events,” she said. “Some of these stereotypes and misconceptions really impact that. Folks think A) women and girls aren’t interested in sports altogether; and B) that they’re not interested in viewing women’s sporting events because they’re not going to be that exciting. But once they’re exposed, from my studies, people are almost twice as likely to seek out an event in the future.”

Christy Leach, the outgoing NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Committee chair, said she is determined to get the women’s quarterfinals on linear television in 2022. It’s been discussed in talks with ESPN after this year’s tournament.  Accommodating first- and second-round games in the same fashion could prove more difficult. The 26-team women’s tournament is larger than the 16-team men’s field, necessitating more games to schedule in tighter windows.

“Yes, we want to be on TV, but what do we want to sacrifice for it?” Leach said. “We don’t want to sacrifice playing on the weekend or something like that. We talk through different scenarios of what we think can be best moving forward. The second round, we made that time block a little bigger too, because there are eight games that day. We worked on spacing them out a bit or depending on the time zone they’re in so we can give the student-athletes a great experience as well as pushing our game to get on a linear network.”

“Going to the NCAA tournament is a big deal,” Leach added. “Having that championship feeling is something we have to continue to look at.”

To get the quarterfinals on linear television, the women will need four broadcast slots. And they will have to find them in a popular college championship time that has been dominated by softball.

“It’s a challenge,” Margulis said. “You look at where they are versus what’s already there, it’s tough. To do that, we’ll have to be creative and make some decisions and see what we can do. It’s a great goal to have. But you only have so many linear networks and they’re all pretty jammed with college programming that weekend.”

Increased coverage is a part of continued efforts to grow the game. Women’s lacrosse this year announced the addition of NCAA Division I programs at Fairleigh Dickinson, Xavier and Clemson — all of which will begin play in 2023. Eastern Michigan and Pittsburgh start next year. There are 121 Division I women’s lacrosse programs and 74 Division I men’s lacrosse programs.

Robertshaw said advocates of the women’s game need to set concrete goals for TV coverage that’s proportionate to its growth. “People talk about ESPN coverage for the women’s championship once a year,” she said. “It needs to be talked about throughout the entire year with a goal and plan and action steps to get equal coverage.”

Said ESPN’s Kettering: “Promotion, production quality, equity in number of games — all of that stuff is something that we want as well and we’re striving for.”

Inequalities exist not just in coverage. The men play in larger stadiums, whereas women have sold out each of the past two championships at smaller venues with sometimes limited facilities. Short noted that Lindenwood and Queens shared a bathroom at the NCAA Division II women’s lacrosse championship this year in Salem, Va.

“I actually think the discrepancies are far more significant in Division II and Division III than even in Division I,” Short said. “They’re large in Division I, but in Division II and III, they are so bad with the differences.”

Among the chief complaints is aligning travel party sizes — women’s lacrosse has more players on the field at a time than any other college sport, but has a smaller travel party size than men’s lacrosse. There are also travel and lodging differences and lesser amenities between the women’s and men’s teams at all levels. For those who have advocated for equality for years, their patience is waning.

“This is a thing that’s used quite often to delay women’s equality,” Corbett said. “They say, ‘It takes time.’ If something needs to be done in men’s basketball, it’s done.”

The IWLCA wants to capitalize on the current momentum for equality in women’s sports. There is a groundswell of support for changes at the NCAA level, and women’s lacrosse supporters are working to get as much fixed as quickly as possible. 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark civil rights legislation prohibiting gender-based discrimination in any school or education program that receives federal money, the interpretation of which has ushered in an era of unprecedented growth for college women’s sports.

“We’re hoping, maybe too optimistically, that this is a genuine opportunity to make some really notable changes,” Livesay said. “That’s our hope. We’ll see how motivated the NCAA is to hear this and make changes moving forward. That’s the big question now.”

Added Cummings: “I don’t think we should be settling for anything less than equal.”