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March Madness: Iowa's win over LSU draws 12.3M views to smash record for most-watched NCAAW game

Iowa's win over LSU in the Elite Eight is the most-viewed women's college basketball game of all time after averaging 12.3 million viewers Monday night.

The audience peaked at 16.1 million viewers to become ESPN's second-highest draw for a basketball game of any kind since 2012, the network announced.

That's more than all but one NBA Finals game last season, based on Nielsen viewing data. Game 5 between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat garnered 13.08 million viewers, while the other contests during the series drew an audience of less than 12 million.

Monday night's viewership also tops every MLB and NHL game last season. When compared to college football last year, it's only rivaled by the SEC championship game, the College Football Playoff and Michigan and vs. Ohio State, which drew 19 million viewers on Fox.

The latest women's basketball viewership numbers are stunning but they shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, considering that Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and their respective teams already made ratings history together once. Their most recent clash broke the record that was previously set in last year's NCAA tournament title game, which saw Reese win Most Outstanding Player as she led LSU to a win over Iowa in front of a historic TV audience of 9.9 million viewers.

Clark was the first player in NCAA tournament history to record back-to-back 40-point games that year, and she didn't stop there. She became the NCAA's all-time leading scorer between women and men earlier this season, and she's continued to draw massive audiences in person and on television.

In four tournament games this year, Iowa has averaged about 6.83 million viewers. That figure includes Iowa’s win over Colorado in the Sweet 16, which recorded an average of 6.9 million viewers. LSU is also popular, having averaged 4.73 million viewers before its run in the tournament ended.

ALBANY, NEW YORK - APRIL 01: Caitlin Clark #22 of the Iowa Hawkeyes reacts during the second half against the LSU Tigers in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on April 01, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes' win over the LSU Tigers was ratings gold. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) (Andy Lyons via Getty Images)

The exponential growth of interest in the women's game is a credit to the wealth of exciting players. While Clark has announced her plans to move on to the WNBA next year, the current freshman class bodes well for the future.

Before LSU and Iowa, UConn’s title win over Oklahoma in 2002 held the record for the most-viewed NCAA women’s basketball title game since ESPN secured the women's tournament rights in 1996. That game featured Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, who took the WNBA by storm soon after. Bird was drafted in 2002, followed in 2004 by Taurasi. Bird went on to become a four-time WNBA champion with Seattle before she retired. Taurasi, a three-time WNBA champion, is still in the league.

Prior to the ESPN era, legend Cheryl Miller and USC made history when she led 11.83 million people to tune into the 1983 championship game on CBS. Miller is now mentoring USC freshman JuJu Watkins, who reached the NCAA Division I record for most points scored by a freshman on Monday night after she led the Trojans to their first Elite Eight appearance in 30 years.

Watkins and the Trojans lost to UConn in that round, as star Paige Bueckers scored 28 points Monday. Bueckers, who has drawn comparisons to Taurasi since she was in sixth grade, is looking to bring the Huskies another NCAA title.

Bueckers and Clark will meet in the Final Four on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).