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How Kaitlin Clark rewrote the rules of women's college basketball

How Kaitlin Clark rewrote the rules of women's college basketball



CNN

Kaitlin 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. an effort. Then another. The house crowd erupted.

Those routine points earlier this month surpassed the all-time college basketball scoring record, for both men and women, putting Clark at the forefront of the sport.

It's been a season for the ages for Clarke, 22, whose talent has fueled a surge in interest in the women's game with March Madness kicking off this week.

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

Viewers seem to agree.

This year, women's college basketball had one of the best regular seasons in history, with regular season games averaging 476,000 viewers. ESPN platforms, which saw an increase in viewership by 37%.

Women's college basketball's audience has increased more than 60% across all national networks, and more than 48% in games the network shows, where it averages a larger audience than its men's counterpart, according to Michael Mulvihill, president of Insight. and analytics at Fox Sports.

John Lewis, who tracks athletic ratings on his website, said Clark — a 6-foot senior known for her shooting and passing game — has undoubtedly upped those numbers. Watch sports media Since 2006. Lewis has compared her to Curry and other superstars, such as LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

“These are the type of players that, when they play, people listen to them and pay attention to them in a way that other players don't,” he said.

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

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And while Clark attracts viewers, women's college basketball is seeing growth that can't be explained solely by the “Clark economy” — as basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli has called it — alone.

Its rise in popularity coincides with a general increase in the importance of women's sports.

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

Iowa and Clark appeared in six of the 10 most-watched women's basketball games this season, all of which garnered more than 1 million viewers, according to data from SportsMediaWatch.

The most-watched game of the season has eclipsed any women's college basketball contest Since 1999when the rivalry game between UConn and Tennessee averaged 3.88 million viewers.

Watch this interactive content on CNN.com

While “mainstream” fans have always known about programs like UConn and Tennessee, more attention recently has been focused on new stars, said Melissa Isaacson, an associate professor of sports journalism at Northwestern University. It's worth noting that last year's tournament, which averaged nearly 10 million viewers, introduced the country to Iowa's Clark and LSU's Angel Reis.

Watch this interactive content on CNN.com

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

For example, this season is only the third year the NCAA has attached “March Madness“Women's Championship Brand.

“A lot of the questions are, ‘Let’s show these games where people can actually watch them,’” Lewis said. “There is something real going on in women's soccer that is not limited to Caitlyn Clarke and is unique even among women's sports.”

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As of March 19, fans who went to TickPick to get tickets for the Final Four had purchased six times the price for the women's final than the men's final, the seller said.

NIL works to empower players and their sports

Women's college basketball players are among the largest players in the market in terms of name, image and likeness sponsorship.

Women's college basketball players are among the largest players in the market in terms of name, image and likeness sponsorship.

Not only is the thing in its third year, and football players make most of the profits, but female basketball players also get major sponsorships.

Women's college basketball sponsorships are expected to reach $60 million by the end of the NIL's third year, according to data from Opendorse, a platform that arranges brand deals between athletes and sponsors.

Watch this interactive content on CNN.com

While Clarke, Reese, and other female stars like Cameron Brink and Paige Bueckers have a large following, top men's college players, like Reed Sheppard, Rob Dillingham and Cody Williams — who may be slated to participate in this year's NBA draft — seem They are less good. a favour.

Using Instagram followers as a metric, Dillingham has the most such players with 669,000, while Clarke and Bueckers have more than a million, with Rees boasting 2.7 million.

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

There has been speculation that Clarke might stay in college rather than enter the WNBA draft to retain her lucrative NIL deal. For example, UConn's Bueckers elected to stay for the fifth year of eligibility the league granted to players affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One factor leading to speculation that Clark might stay in college is that the WNBA does not have the same platform as college women's basketball.

While Clark and Reese played in front of nearly 10 million viewers in last year's College Championship Game, Game 4 of the College Championship WNBA Finals It peaked with 1.3 million viewers, with an average of 889,000 viewers. The entire four-game series averaged 728,000 viewers, according to data from Sports Media Watch

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

But there is precedent for college stars bringing big fans with them to the WNBA. A five-time Olympic gold medalist, the WNBA's all-time scoring leader and a three-time WNBA champion, Diana Taurasi's debut 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 attracted large crowds, Lewis added.

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

The escalation of Clark's college career could come in the form of a national title. But if that outcome remains elusive, it will have bypassed the college game — and brought with it legions of newly engaged viewers.