ESPN Studio Crew Was the Real Winner of the NCAA Women's Tournament


The 2024 NCAA women's basketball tournament was a huge success by any metric. An undefeated champion was crowned in South Carolina and interest in the sport reached a new stratosphere thanks to stars like Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers, JuJu Watkins and Angel Reese. Record-breaking ratings followed. ESPN is reaping the benefits, and deservingly so. The network's coverage of the tournament was excellent again.

ESPN's studio crew of Elle Duncan, Chiney Ogwumike and Andraya Carter has great chemistry. There may not be a better team in sports when it comes to wraparound coverage of an event. With Duncan hosting and Ogwumike and Carter providing commentary the three-woman team is knowledgable, informative and enthusiastic about whatever game they're discussing.

Which is why the Final Four coverage was a little disappointing. The studio show was shot on location in Cleveland and Carolyn Peck and Aliyah Boston joined the desk. Both are also excellent, with Boston, just 22-years old, specifically drawing praise for her performance, but were they necessary? On the one hand, it seems like having too many valuable voices is a good problem. ESPN has incredible depth in their women's basketball coverage. If the Caitlin Clark effect carries over to the WNBA, they're going to need all these personalities.

On the other hand, the truth is Duncan, Ogwumike and Carter didn't need the help to do a comprehensive show. The network got to the biggest stage and just had to tinker. It's understandable because the bigger the event the more talking heads need to get involved. That's why the Super Bowl pregame show has been a punchline for decades. Everyone wants to be involved, but do viewers really need or want it?

Maybe the answer is more multi-casts. They already have the Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi show, which is extremely entertaining. Perhaps next year there will be room for a coaches cast like they do for the College Football Playoff. That would certainly be a better use of Peck than having her sit quietly and wait her turn to talk on a crowded desk.

No matter how many people are involved, ESPN's coverage still compares favorably to Turner's coverage of the men's tournament where they lean on the Inside the NBA crew. It's just a different type of product. Turner may produce a more entertaining show, led by the faces of Inside the NBA, but ESPN gives you the better coverage. We know Charles Barkley doesn't watch much college basketball, yet he's still prominently featured in the studio and during every commercial break.

ESPN's biggest problem is that it's still ESPN. While the coverage of the actual games was great, they only know one way to discuss sports and that's by embracing debate. The only thing that saved us from three weeks of asking whether the '23-'24 Gamecocks were better than the '72 Miami Dolphins, or '27 New York Yankees was the incessant debate about whether or not Caitlin Clark is GOAT. It was a real moment for equality as longtime college basketball fans saw their beloved sport treated like the NBA Finals or a regular season NFL game. Expect even more of that when the Caitlin Clark effect carries over to the WNBA.

Again, that's a problem of too much. They've got too many people who want to be involved in the discussion. It can be tiresome on daytime television, but the actual broadcasts are what actually matter and ESPN has got the goods there. What a good time for so many people to be watching.