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Caitlin Clark Is Changing Women’s Sports. Is It Enough?


You don’t have to be a sports fan to have noticed something epic is happening in women’s basketball.

Call it the Caitlin Clark Effect, the phenomenon named for the Iowa Hawkeyes guard who completely reshaped the college basketball landscape this season. She sold tickets across the country, went viral every time she stopped to sign autographs for swarms kids lined up to see their favorite athlete, and broke a dozen records—including the all-time scoring record for college basketball and the record for most 3-pointers in a single season (previously held by Steph Curry, widely considered to be the greatest shooter to ever play the game).

Clark was also at least partially responsible for the fact that, for the first time in history, the viewership numbers for the women’s March Madness tournament crushed the viewership for the men’s tournament—by millions. Nearly 19 million people watched Clark and the Hawkeyes take on the legendary coach Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks during the championship game on Sunday. It was the most watched basketball game—women’s or mens, college or pro—in five years, according to ESPN.

Just three short years ago, during Clark’s freshman year, the vibe in women’s college basketball was very different.

You may remember the viral photos and videos of the grossly unequal conditions between the men’s and women’s March Madness tournaments in 2021. Women athletes had inferior training facilities, inferior marketing, even inferior swag bags from the NCAA.

An independent investigation of the reported inequalities at the tournament found the NCAA had created a culture that “prioritized Division I men’s basketball over everything else in ways that create, normalize, and perpetuate gender inequities” and that the organization perpetuated “a mistaken narrative that women’s basketball is destined to be a ‘money loser’ year after year.”

In the fallout, things began to change. The women’s tournament was finally granted the right to use the bankable March Madness branding, media outlets increased their coverage, games appeared on TV.

The environment, in other words, was ideal for a once-in-a-generation athlete like Clark to come in and make people remember why sports have such unifying power. “When you’re given an opportunity, women’s sports just kind of thrives,” Clark said, per the Associated Press. “We started our season playing in front of 55,000 people in Kinnick Stadium, and now we’re ending it playing in front of probably 15 million people or more on TV. It just continues to get better and better and better. That’s never going to stop.”

The hype surrounding Clark (championship title or no championship title) doesn’t have to stop. Sports economists and pundits are already discussing her impact on the WNBA, a league Clark hasn’t even played for yet.

Tickets for Indiana Fever games—the team Clark is expected to join as the number one draft pick on April 15—are selling at record highs and two WNBA teams have already reportedly moved their games against Indiana to bigger arenas to accommodate the expected crowds. Angel Reese and NCAA champion Kamilla Cardoso have also entered the draft. The combined presence of these athletes with their huge social media presence and ability to draw fans into games could “transform” the league and help the WNBA double its current media rights deal, said Commissioner Cathy Engelbert in an interview with CNBC.


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