ESPN will air Women's Final Four on flagship station, eliminate regionalization for 1st 2 rounds

ESPN will air the Women's Final Four on its flagship station in 2020. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Exposure is part of the battle in women’s sports, and ESPN has taken another step in the fight. The exclusive rights holder of the women’s college basketball national tournament committed to its role in growing the game by announcing it will air the entire 2020 Women’s Final Four in primetime on the flagship network. The semifinals had previously aired on ESPN2.

In addition, the worldwide leader in sports will discontinue its practice of regionalization for the first two rounds and make every game available nationally on ESPN’s television networks, it said. It’s the 18th year the company has aired every game, though previously the first two rounds were aired regionally with five time slots mostly available on ESPN2.

ESPN delivers on commitment to NCAAW

ESPN said in its release the decision is due to its “continued commitment to women’s college basketball” and growing viewership.

“[It] was a direct result of the ever-growing popularity of women’s college basketball,” Carol Stiff, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions, said in the release. “Last year alone, we saw an 8% ratings increase for the Women’s Final Four. These changes will only further celebrate a great sport with a tremendous fan base.”

The decision makes it easier for already established fans to see games, not to mention developing new ones. By changing its broadcast structure it also puts more emphasis to viewers that the games are important — not to mention good. And with this season’s parity, it’s a bit of a toss-up as to which teams will make the Final Four. The first- and second-rounds could feature notable upsets.

NCAAW experiences strong viewership

It’s not a move to be nice, it could also help the company’s bottom line. ESPN has already seen solid viewership in the current season by putting top-notch match-ups into its Monday and Thursday night slots.

The non-conference game between Baylor and UConn had more viewers than any men’s NCAA game or NHL game that aired that night, via Her Hoop Stats. The following week Oregon defeated Stanford to a national TV audience of 318,000, which per Her Hoop Stats drew more than two of three men’s games on cable and was double the viewership of ESPN2. It was also in a tougher 9 p.m. ET timeslot.

Ratings aren’t available for Monday night’s game between No. 1 South Carolina and No. 10 Mississippi State, but the 13,163 fans in attendance says a lot about how many were watching at home.

#BetonWomen comes to TV, marketing

The WNBA, which experienced a spike in viewership last season in part due to greater exposure and more marketing, came to an agreement with his players association on a landmark collective bargaining agreement last week. The players coined the phrase “Bet On Women” when it opted out more than a year ago and that applies here in the college game.

ESPN is under fire every season for not giving enough attention, marketing nor credit to the women’s college game even though it’s the sole rights holder. (Accidentally leaking the bracket early in 2019 also didn’t help.) Rather, ESPN fills time with any men’s basketball game, even if there are better women’s match-ups at the same time. At the 2016 tournament, it broadcasted some of the early games remotely, creating a negative viewing experience for hardcore fans.You don’t grow any fandom that way.

By airing every game of the first two rounds nationally, when it hadn’t before, and giving the two biggest games of the season a primetime spot ESPN is investing in the women’s game just as it does the men. And ideally that pays off.

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