The 2018 Women’s Final Four, hosted for the first time in Columbus, Ohio, marked the 37th year of the championship and featured thrilling basketball games in front of sellout crowds during a weekend of well-attended fan and community events and robust broadcast and digital viewership for the championship.
“This year’s Women’s Final Four was a remarkable event for the entire women’s basketball community, and especially for college basketball fans,” said Lynn Holzman, NCAA vice president of women’s basketball. “I am proud of my home state of Ohio for its support of women’s basketball and grateful to the Columbus Local Organizing Committee for its partnership in making this experience special for our student-athletes and coaches.”Starting in 2017, Women’s Final Four games shifted to a Friday-Sunday format from the Sunday-Tuesday format used in previous years. The change, which was intended to enable more fans to attend games, has resulted in sellout crowds both years.
The 2018 Women’s Final Four at Nationwide Arena saw a total attendance of 39,123, surpassing fan turnout from Dallas in 2017. The national championship game had 19,559 attendees, also up from the previous year.
The crowds in Columbus witnessed three of the most exciting Women’s Final Four games in tournament history. Both semifinal games went to overtime — a first for the Women’s Final Four — and 2018 national champion Notre Dame won both of its games on buzzer-beating shots delivered by junior guard Arike Ogunbowale.
In the first game of the semifinals March 30, a late 3-point field goal in regulation enabled Mississippi State to tie Louisville and send the game to overtime, where the Bulldogs eventually pulled away with the win. In the second national semifinal game, Notre Dame defeated UConn, which was making its 11th straight Women’s Final Four appearance, on a shot from Ogunbowale that put Notre Dame ahead of UConn in overtime with one second on the clock.
In the championship game April 1, Mississippi State dominated the first half, holding Notre Dame to only 3 points in the second period, and led by as many as 15 points in the third period before the Fighting Irish surged. Notre Dame won on a buzzer-beating 3-point shot from Ogunbowale, the Women’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player. The Notre Dame comeback was the largest in championship game history.
NOTRE DAME... WOW pic.twitter.com/Vs3uR9a9nx— NCAA WBB (@ncaawbb) April 2, 2018
With the victory, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw earned her 800th win and second national championship at the school, where she has been head coach for 31 years. Notre Dame’s previous national title came in 2001.
“The 2018 Women’s Final Four served as the best possible conclusion to an amazing overall tournament,” said Rhonda Lundin Bennett, chair of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee and senior associate athletics director and senior woman administrator at Nevada. “The committee is proud of all of the student-athletes who competed in the tournament, and we extend our congratulations to the Women’s Final Four teams, who stepped up to the sport’s biggest stage and delivered breathtaking, historic performances that won’t soon be forgotten.
Overall, the 2018 Division I women’s basketball tournament attracted 252,110 fans, an increase of more than 25,000 from the previous year and marking the highest combined total attendance since 2004 and 10th-highest combined attendance in tournament history. The four regional sites hosted 50,848 fans, a 35 percent increase from the 2017 tournament.
Broadcast and digital viewership
The national championship game between Notre Dame and Mississippi State peaked at a 3.0 overnight rating, as Ogunbowale hit the game-winning shot. The championship game averaged a total of 3.5 million viewers across television and digital.
The semifinal overnight ratings peaked at 1.6 for the Louisville vs. Mississippi State semifinal (with an estimated average 1.52 million viewers) and 2.1 for the UConn vs. Notre Dame game, averaging a live audience of 2.31 million. Overall with digital streaming, the semifinals averaged 1.9 million viewers.
Ratings in local broadcast markets soared. Columbus averaged an 8.5 market rating for the championship game, the highest rating on record in that market for a women’s basketball tournament game. Hartford-New Haven was the top local market for the UConn-Notre Dame semifinal, averaging a 16.7 rating, an increase from last year’s Women’s Final Four semifinal featuring UConn vs. Mississippi State.
The entire Women’s Final Four averaged 2.54 million television and digital viewers over three games.
On social media, according to Nielsen Social Top Five ratings, the 2018 national championship game was the No. 1 sporting event during the broadcast window, garnering more than 1.1 million social interactions.
Total impressions on NCAA social media accounts increased 30 percent (to 11.6 million), likes increased by 41 percent (to 86,300), link clicks more than doubled (to 39,400) and retweets stayed the same. Video views skyrocketed nearly 1,900 percent to 3.4 million.
Live social media viewership soared on Periscope this year. With an increase in the frequency of live social media broadcasts in 2018, the NCAA saw an increase of nearly 500 percent in total viewership (up to 288,800), multiplying total hours of broadcast footage watched by nearly six times (to nearly 4,000 hours). Live social media broadcasts averaged 8,250 total viewers (up 292 percent), 4,114 live viewers (up 777 percent) and 4,136 replay viewers (up 153 percent).
Fan events and participation
Turnout and attendance at fan events in Columbus far exceeded the previous year’s.
Tourney Town presented by Capital One, the official fan fest of the Women’s Final Four, recorded 23,770 attendees, the fourth-highest on record. Programming included the new Beyond the Baseline Lounge, which offered professional development and wellness advice to visitors. In honor of the late North Carolina State women’s basketball coach Kay Yow, Tourney Town hosted special Play4Kay events to raise money and awareness for the foundation.
The NCAA Bounce, sponsored by Buick, had approximately 2,250 youth participants. Last year’s Bounce in Dallas was rained out, but this turnout surpassed previous host communities.
New this year, the Thursday Pick and Roll event drove fans to targeted Columbus businesses, where former student-athletes — including Olympians, a Harlem Globetrotter and WNBA players — made appearances. On March 31, Nationwide Arena hosted fans for the Super Saturday Night Party, a free event that provided an in-arena experience for fans and featured contests with women’s basketball celebrities.
The NCAA teamed up with the Nancy Lieberman Charities’ Dream Courts program, the Greater Columbus Sports Commission and Columbus Recreation and Parks to refurbish an outdoor basketball court at Beatty Park in Columbus. The dedication ceremony was March 28, immediately followed by a youth clinic supported by Ohio State.
More than 100 children in grades three through 11 participated in the NCAA Youth Clinics on March 31 inside Tourney Town presented by Capital One. These clinics included conditioning, life skills and sport instruction from NCAA coaches and student-athletes. Each participant received a free T-shirt.
This year’s Read to the Final Four program included 35 participating schools from Columbus City Schools. The program — in partnership with Columbus City Schools, the Columbus Local Organizing Committee, the 2nd and 7 Foundation, Reading Plus and Scholastic — used a bracket-style literacy challenge to inspire accelerated reading and increase classroom achievement. Columbus students read an estimated 16 million words outside of school hours this year, enough to fill the Oxford English Dictionary nearly 100 times. The 2,000 children who participated in the program were invited to a celebration March 29 at Tourney Town, where the top readers and top classrooms were announced.
“The joy, excitement and energy that hosting the Final Four brought to Columbus was remarkable,” said Greater Columbus Sports Commission Executive Director Linda Shetina Logan. “While the games themselves drew sell-out attendance and the unprecedented attention of sports fans from across the nation, it was the empowering message of the NCAA Women’s Final Four that helped us create new alliances and legacy programs beyond the games that will continue to lift and expand the role of women in our community for many years to come.”
Preparations have begun for the 2019 Women’s Final Four, which will be April 5 and 7 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. Full event information will be available soon at ncaa.com/womens-final-four.