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Women’s college basketball: How Caitlin Clark rewrote the rules

Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Caitlin Clark stands alone on the Iowa Hawkeyes’ home floor, with 15,000 fans transfixed by the moment — and more than three million viewers watching on television.

She drains a free throw. Effortless. Then another. The home crowd erupts.

These routine points last month surpassed the all-time college basketball scoring record, for both men and women, launching Clark into the pantheon of the sport.

It’s been a season for the ages for Clark, 22, whose talent has fueled a boom in interest in the women’s game as March Madness got underway last month.

NBA star Steph Curry called her record-breaking performance “must-see TV” in an interview with CBS last month.

Viewers apparently agree.

This year, college women’s basketball has had one of its best regular seasons in history, with regular season games averaging 476,000 viewers on ESPN platforms, where it has seen a 37% viewership increase.

The audience for women’s college basketball has increased by more than 60% across all national networks, and more than 48% on games shown by the network, where it is averaging a bigger audience than its men’s counterpart, according to Michael Mulvihill, president of insight and analytics at Fox Sports.

After Monday’s Elite 8 game against LSU smashed ratings records, Iowa and Clark will take on Connecticut in the Final Four on Friday evening.

Clark – a six-foot senior known for both her shooting and passing game – has undoubtedly driven those numbers, said Jon Lewis, who has tracked sports ratings on his website Sports Media Watch since 2006. Lewis compared her to Curry and other transcendent stars, such as LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

“These are the type of players that, when they’re playing, people tune in and pay attention to in a way that they don’t for other players,” he said.

Clark’s final-season statistics, which helped her top Pete Maravich’s record, also bear similarities to Curry’s last year with Davidson. Clark is averaging 31.9 points a game and 38% from three-point range, while Curry averaged 28.6 points and 39% from deep.

TV ratings signal growth in college women’s basketball

While Clark is enticing viewers, women’s college basketball is experiencing growth that can’t only be explained by “Clarkonomics”– as basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli called it – alone.

The rise in its popularity is coinciding with an overall increase in the prominence of women’s sports.

That rise is due to improved TV coverage – such as featuring games on major networks and in optimal time slots – and the way that young female athletes have used the platform of Name, Image and Likeness, or NIL, which has allowed college and high school athletes to earn income from sponsorships, among other factors.

Iowa and Clark have featured in six of the 10-most viewed women’s basketball games this season, all earning more than one million viewers, according to data from SportsMediaWatch.

The most viewed game this season eclipsed any women’s college basketball contest since 1999, when a UConn and Tennessee rivalry matchup had 3.88 million average viewers.

While “mainstream” fans have always known programs like UConn and Tennessee, more attention has been focused lately on newer stars, said Melissa Isaacson, an assistant sports journalism professor at Northwestern. Notably, last year’s championship, which averaged nearly 10 million viewers, introduced the country to Iowa’s Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese. Their rematch in the Elite Eight matchup Monday garnered more than 12 million viewers, with Clark coming out on top to advance her team to the Final Four.

The surge in women’s college basketball is also due to more investment in media coverage of women’s sports, said Lewis.

For example, this season is just the third year in which the NCAA has attached the “March Madness” branding to the women’s tournament.

“A lot of it is, ‘Hey let’s put these games on where people can actually watch them,’” Lewis said. “There’s something real happening in the women’s game that’s not limited to Caitlin Clark and is unique even among women’s sports.”

And, as of March 19, fans who went to TickPick to get tickets for the Final Four had purchased six times as many for the women’s final than for the men’s final, the seller said.

NIL empowers players — and their sports

College women’s basketball players are among the biggest players in the market for Name, Image and Likeness sponsorships.

NIL is only in its third year and football players make most of the earnings, but female basketball players are also racking in large sponsorships.

Sponsorships for college women’s basketball are projected to reach $60 million by the end of the third year of NIL, according to data from Opendorse, a platform that arranges brand deals between athletes and sponsors.

While Clark, Reese and other women’s stars such as Cameron Brink and Paige Bueckers possess huge followings, top men’s college players, such as Reed Sheppard, Rob Dillingham and Cody Williams – who may be destined for this year’s NBA draft – are seemingly less well-known.

Using Instagram followers as a barometer, Dillingham has the most of those men’s players with 669,000, while Clark and Bueckers all have over a million, with Reese boasting 2.7 million.

“By making these deals possible …[NIL] has shed more light on the individuals and, by proxy, on their sports,” said Sam Weber, who heads communications at Opendorse.

There was even speculation that Clark might stay in college rather than entering the WNBA draft to retain her lucrative NIL deals. Bueckers of UConn, for example, chose to stay for a fifth year of eligibility granted by the league to players affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Will the attention translate to the WNBA?

One factor driving the speculation that Clark might stay in college was that WNBA doesn’t have the same platform as women’s college basketball.

While Clark and Reese played for nearly 10 million viewers in last year’s college championship, Game 4 of the WNBA finals peaked with 1.3 million viewers, averaging 889,000. The full four-game series averaged 728,000 viewers, according to data from Sports Media Watch

The WNBA has historically had a smaller audience than college women’s basketball, according to Lewis. That’s in part because it hasn’t been around as long: By the league’s first season, in 1997, several college women’s programs had already developed strong fan bases, Isaacson said.

But there’s a precedent for college stars bringing large audiences with them to the WNBA. Five-time Olympic gold medalist, all-time WNBA scoring leader and three-time WNBA champion Diana Taurasi’s first game in 2004 was the most-watched game on ESPN/ABC, according to Lewis.

Three-time WNBA champion and two-time gold medalist Candace Parker’s first game in 2008 also drew large audiences, Lewis added.

Ticket prices to watch the Indiana Fever – the team eyeing Clark for its No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft – have more than doubled.

The crescendo to Clark’s college career could come in the form of a national title. But if that result remains elusive, she will have transcended the college game — and brought legions of newly engaged viewers along with her.

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