How Caitlin Clark rewrote the rules of women’s college basketball
How Caitlin Clark rewrote the rules of women’s college basketball


Caitlin Clark stands alone on the home field of the Iowa Hawkeyes, with 15,000 fans stunned right now — and more than three million viewers watching on television.

She drains a free throw. Without an effort. Then another one. The home crowd erupts.

Those routine points earlier this month surpassed the all-time college basketball scoring record for both men and women, catapulting Clark into the sports pantheon.

It’s been quite the season for Clarke, 22, whose talent sparked a boom in interest in the women’s game when March Madness kicked off this week.

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

Viewers apparently agree.

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

Women’s college basketball viewership is up more than 60 percent across all national networks and up more than 48 percent for games shown by the network, which averages a larger audience than the men’s counterpart, according to Michael Mulvihill, president of insight and analytics on Fox Sports.

Clarke — a six-foot-4 senior known for both her shooting and passing game — undoubtedly led to those numbers, said John Lewis, who has tracked sports ratings on his Sports Media Watch website 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 play, people tune in and pay attention to them in a way that they don’t pay attention to other players,” he said.

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

As Clark draws viewers, women’s college basketball is experiencing growth that can’t be explained by “Clarknomics” — as basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli has dubbed it — alone.

Its rise in popularity has coincided with an overall increase in the prominence of women’s sports.

This increase is due to improved television coverage – such as showing games on major networks and in optimal timeslots – and the way young female athletes have used the Name, Image and Likeness, or NIL, platform, which allows college and high school athletes to earn sponsorship income, among other factors.

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

The most-watched game this season eclipsed any women’s basketball contest since 1999, when the UConn-Tennessee rivalry averaged 3.88 million viewers.

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While “mainstream” fans have always known programs like UConn and Tennessee, more attention has recently focused on newer stars, said Melissa Isaacson, assistant professor of sports journalism at Northwestern. It should be noted that last year’s championship, which averaged nearly 10 million viewers, featured Iowa’s Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese.

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

For example, this season marks just the third year the NCAA has attached the March Madness brand to the women’s tournament.

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

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

NIL empowers players – and their sports

College basketball players are among the biggest players in the market for name, image and likeness sponsorships.

College basketball players are among the biggest players in the market for name, image and likeness sponsorships.

The NIL is only in its third year, and football players make the bulk of the profits, but women’s basketball players are also racking up major sponsorships.

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

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While Clark, Reese and other female stars like Cameron Brink and Paige Bukers have huge followings, top men’s college players like Reed Shepherd, Rob Dillingham and Cody Williams — who may be destined for this year’s NBA draft — don’t seem to be as much good. famous.

Using Instagram followers as a barometer, Dillingham has the most of these male players with 669,000, while Clarke and Bookers have over a million, with Reese boasting 2.7 million.

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

There was even speculation that Clark might stay in college instead of entering the WNBA draft in order to keep her lucrative NIL deals. UConn’s Bueckers, for example, opted to sit out a fifth year of terms the league granted to players affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the factors leading to speculation that Clark might stay in college was that the WNBA does not have the same platform as women’s college basketball.

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

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

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

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

Ticket prices to see the Indiana Fever — the team that is chasing Clark for its No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft — have doubled.

The crescendo of 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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