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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Bryan Armen Graham

Caitlin Clark can take women’s basketball to a level never seen before

Iowa Hawkeyes’ guard Caitlin Clark in action against West Virginia Mountaineers
Iowa Hawkeyes’ guard Caitlin Clark in action against West Virginia Mountaineers. Photograph: Jeffrey Becker/USA Today Sports

Since the NCAA women’s basketball tournament final on Sunday drew more US television viewers than the men’s final for the first time in history, it has been hailed as a watershed moment for women’s sports in America. A vanguard of star players including Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers, LSU’s Angel Reese and Southern California’s JuJu Watkins have lifted the profile of the women’s game to unprecedented heights over the past few months while recalibrating expectations for how all women’s sports can be covered, commercialised and consumed.

But none of them have commanded the national consciousness quite like Caitlin Clark, the ponytailed once-in-a-generation talent from the University of Iowa whose modest 6ft frame belies her outsized impact on college basketball and American sports at large.

The 22-year-old native of West Des Moines, who broke Pete Maravich’s 54-year-old record to become the all-time highest scorer in major college basketball history earlier this year, carried Iowa all the way to the final, repeatedly setting new TV ratings benchmarks along the way. After the Hawkeyes were denied a storybook ending by South Carolina in Sunday’s title game, despite Clark leading all scorers with 30 points, Gamecocks’ head coach, Dawn Staley, had barely started her victory speech at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse before paying tribute to the woman of the moment, saying: “I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport and it’s not going to stop here.”

Caitlin Clark's greatest moments

12 November 2019 – Committing to the University of Iowa A prodigy who first drew attention from college programs when she was in seventh grade, Clark initially signed a letter of intent to play for two-time national champions Notre Dame before committing to the less prestigious Hawkeyes for an opportunity to build something special closer to home.

26 February 2023 – Buzzer-beater to stun Indiana Clark’s national profile levelled up midway through her junior season when she drained a clutch three-pointer at the death to topple a Hoosiers team ranked second in the nation.

31 March 2023 – Spoiling South Carolina’s perfect season in the Final Four Not simply happy to be there after leading Iowa to the school’s first Final Four in three decades, Clark poured in 41 points to spark a famous upset of a South Carolina team who entered the contest undefeated.

15 February 2024 – Becoming NCAA women’s basketball’s all-time scoring leader Needing only eight points to surpass Kelsey Plum as the NCAA women’s career scoring leader, Clark made history in style before a delirious home crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena; she broke the record with a 35-foot logo three less than three minutes in and finished with a career-high 49 points in a defeat of Michigan.

7 April 2024 – Setting new TV ratings record for third time in eight days After drawing a record 12.3 million US television viewers for their victory over LSU in the Elite Eight, Clark and the Hawkeyes surpassed their own mark a few days later when their Final Four win over UConn attracted an audience of 14.2 million ... and once again with a viewership of 18.9m for their NCAA title game tilt with South Carolina.

It was the culmination of a transformative season, headlined by Clark, in which women’s basketball penetrated the US mainstream like never before. The TV numbers tell only half the story. Consider all the morning chatshows dissecting the stars, personalities and beefs across the women’s game after years of ignoring it entirely. Or how the cheapest ticket on the resale market for Sunday’s title game surpassed $500 (£400) at tip-off, more than three times the asking price for Monday night’s men’s final. Or the more than 17,000 spectators who turned out last Saturday to watch Iowa and South Carolina in an open practice, forcing organisers to turn fans away by the time Clark and the Hawkeyes took to the court. Or the Saturday Night Live sketch that centred on how Clark and co have overshadowed the men’s tournament. When she broke the college scoring record, fans including Joe Biden, Billie Jean King, Jason Sudeikis, Mila Kunis, LeBron James and Tom Brady were quick to congratulate her.

Hardcore basketball aficionados have known about Clark since she emerged as one of the country’s top-ranked recruits during a standout career at Dowling Catholic High School. After initially signing a letter of intent to play for the two-time national champions Notre Dame, she reconsidered and committed to a less-heralded program for an opportunity to build something special closer to home, a choice that has for ever endeared her to Iowans.

She wasted no time making an impact, scoring 27 points on her debut and leading the Hawkeyes to the Sweet Sixteen as a freshman, but it wasn’t until this past season that she made the leap to household name.

Clark’s ability to score or create opportunities for her teammates from anywhere past midcourt, while operating at an extremely high pace, makes for a crowd-pleasing playing style that is easy for casual observers to grasp. Her knack for draining three-pointers from the midcourt logo has drawn comparisons to the NBA star Stephen Curry, while her exceptional court vision and ability to whip one-handed passes to every corner of the court makes her nearly impossible to contain.

Since drawing a record 55,646 fans for an October pre-season game in an outdoor football stadium, Clark and the Hawkeyes became appointment viewing. Iowa’s win over LSU in the Elite Eight drew 12.3m US television viewers, making it one of the most watched sporting events of the past year outside the NFL. Their Final Four contest with Connecticut last Saturday night bested it, averaging 14.2 million viewers and peaking at 17 million, better than every World Series and NBA finals game last year.

Then came Sunday’s title game against South Carolina, which averaged 18.9 million viewers on ABC and ESPN. That number easily surpassed the 14.82 million average for UConn’s 75-60 victory over Purdue in Monday’s men’s final on TBS and TNT.

There is reason to believe women’s basketball can sustain this momentum. Schools are pouring more funding into women’s sports than ever before. Social media and new rules allowing student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness have enabled players to amplify their star power like never before. The growth of conference networks along with ESPN’s commitment to airing games on their flagship channel have resulted in more televised regular-season games than ever. The machinery that has made it possible to get players like Clark in front of viewers appears built to last.

“It’s a moment, like people are saying, but it’s more than a moment, you know?” UConn’s coach, Geno Auriemma, said last week. “Sometimes moments become minutes, and minutes become hours, and hours become days. And the next thing you know, it becomes part of the national pastime.”

Women’s college basketball has always had great players at the top, from Cheryl Miller to Sheryl Swoopes to Lisa Leslie to Diana Taurasi to Candace Parker to Breanna Stewart to Sabrina Ionescu. But a deeper talent pool than ever before has made for more stars and greater suspense, helping expand the sport’s reach to new audiences. They are watching not because they’re told they should support women’s sports, but the games have been compelling on their own terms.

Now the question is whether the excitement generated by Clark will carry over when she joins the professional ranks at Monday night’s WNBA draft in Brooklyn, where she’s expected to be selected by the Indiana Fever with the No 1 overall pick. Early indications are positive: two WNBA teams have already moved their games against Indiana to larger arenas to accommodate demand.

“I know her shoulders are heavy because of what she has to give to women’s basketball. I just want to say we’re thankful. We’re thankful that she chose to play basketball,” Staley said on Sunday. “We’re thankful for the way she’s handled all of it. Her next step is the WNBA – I do think she can be that person that elevates us.”

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