Kaitlyn Clark's impact has made women's basketball one of the hottest tickets of all time

  • Written by Brandon Drennon
  • BBC News, Washington

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Caitlin Clark plays for Iowa State

He described the scene as “controlled chaos.”

Dozens of people lined up down the block and around the corner to get to Sports Bra in Portland, Oregon, the first bar in the world that — according to owner Jenny Newgen — features only women's sports.

The fact that it was the middle of the day on a Monday did not dampen the crowd's enthusiasm, nor did it prevent them from drinking “three times” the amount of drinks they normally would.

They were there to watch an epic women's college basketball championship game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the LSU Tigers, led by stars Caitlin Clark and Angel Reyes.

From Sports Bra fans to celebrities Lebron James and Travis Scott, more than 12 million viewers tuned in. It was the most watched college basketball game ever, for both women and men.

“The game was exciting,” Newgen said, recalling the atmosphere that witnessed the University of Iowa’s victory over Louisiana State University, a victory led by Clark, who scored 41 points.

“I've been watching women's basketball for decades. I feel like everyone is catching up… it's about time,” she added.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has been hosting the basketball tournament known as March Madness since 1939.

In just three weeks, 68 of the best college teams are triaged into one champion.

The annual event is a media frenzy with millions of fans watching the games around the clock for days on end.

For decades, this only applied to the men's tournament. Not anymore.

Ticket prices for this year's women's tournament cost twice as much as the men's on average, at $11,000 (£8,736).

One reason this is a “watershed moment in women's basketball” is generational talent like Iowa State's Kaitlyn Clark, Front Office Sports reporter Amanda Kristovich said.

Another reason, she said, is that the push for gender equality in college sports has reached a new level.

In 2024, the NCAA signed a television contract with ESPN that values ​​the women's tournament at $65 million annually, more than 10 times the previous rate. Less than five years ago, it wasn't even possible to watch every game of the women's NCAA Tournament on national broadcasts.

The bigger stage has given a bigger platform to bigger stars. Clark – arguably the biggest name in the sport at the moment – has been the main driver of the latest furor.

The college senior scored more than 3,900 points in her career, more than any other college athlete, male or female, in NCAA history.

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Kaitlyn Clark: Iowa star breaks records on and off the field

What is the Caitlin Clark effect?

Kaitlyn Clark is a 22-year-old charming, controversial, headline-grabbing, trash-talking Iowa guard who is considered one of the greatest basketball players in college history.

She wins games. Lots of games. Breaks records. Lots of records. The stadiums are filled with large audiences eager to see her.

Many are hoping to witness her famous three-point shots from long range.

She stands dozens of feet from the basket, sometimes in the middle of the court, and effortlessly shoots the ball over her opponents' heads. The distance often challenges the average range of a collegiate player.

Clark recently broke the record for the most three-point shots made in a season, a record previously held by pro player Steph Curry.

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Kaitlyn Clark hits a 3-pointer

Her star power – punctuated by more than a million followers on Instagram – has attracted a slew of new fans to the sport. People travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars just to see it.

The phenomenon of its effect has been called the Caitlin Clark effect.

As with Taylor Swift, her appearance not only drives up ticket prices, but also drives up hotel prices and squeezes reservation lists for nearby restaurants.

“She's a once-in-a-generation player. She's amazing. She's going viral,” Kristovich said. “It's the conduit through which a lot of people discovered women's college basketball this year.”

However, Ms Kristovich added: “Would Caitlyn Clarke have gotten the attention she's getting now 20 years ago? Probably not.”

“And it's not because it wasn't good,” she said. “It's because people weren't paying attention.”

For decades, the women's tournament was treated as a “second-tier event,” according to Ms. Krestovich.

One example is that the women's tournament was not allowed to use the NCAA-branded March Madness logo until the 2022 season. Until recently, it was also difficult to find on television, Krestovich said.

Brake the barriers

“The moment we're in is one that's been a snowball for the last generation or so,” said Kate Fagan, a former University of Colorado basketball player and author of Hoop Muses.

There were three major turning points, separated by decades.

First, in the 1970s, the NCAA was forced to provide fair athletic opportunities for women when a federal law known as Title IX went into effect. Then, in 1996, the creation of the Women's National Basketball League gave young players a path to becoming professional athletes.

The third major catalyst arrived more than 20 years later, on TikTok. In 2021, a University of Oregon women's basketball player posted a video comparing a women's NCAA tournament practice facility to a men's facility.

There were huge differences. The men's facility featured rows of exercise platforms, equipped with dumbbells, barbells and weights capable of reaching hundreds of pounds. The women's facility had one 30-pound (14 kg) tower of dumbbells and a few yoga mats. The video went viral.

A follow-up investigation by an outside law firm found that the NCAA “prioritizes men's basketball, contributes to gender inequality” and that it “significantly undervalues ​​women's basketball as an asset.”

The NCAA then made an overhaul that included allowing the women's tournament to use March Madness branding. A new media contract with ESPN, which now broadcasts all women's March Madness games across multiple platforms, was another byproduct.

“There have always been great players. There have always been great athletes, but now there's a bigger group of people seeing them,” said Pamela Grande, co-author of Shattering the Glass, which chronicles women's basketball.

“Honestly, it's a lot better than people think.”

But she pointed out that “sport does not depend only on tickets, but on sponsors.”

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New fans are drawn to the sport

Millions of dollars are paid to college athletes

In 2021, a combination of state laws and NCAA rule changes has opened up unprecedented opportunities for college athletes to make money by selling the rights to their name, image and likeness (NIL).

Six-figure endorsement deals were quickly followed, signed by players – some still in their teens. Top brands like State Farm and Nike have begun partnering with top athletes like Caitlin Clark.

“There are few female athletes who earn millions of dollars through NIL every year,” said Blake Lawrence, founder and CEO of Opendorse.com, a platform for NIL contracts.

National endorsement deals also put athletes in front of more people more often, broadcasting them on televisions across America in commercials and games.

Lawrence said women have the advantage of having a social media presence, which is a “huge component” of most no-loss trades.

However, women college basketball players are still hampered in many ways by the NCAA structure, Ms. Krestovich said.

In the tournament, men's basketball teams can earn money for their conferences as they advance through the rounds. Women's teams are not.

For the top four teams remaining in both the men's and women's tournaments this year, that equates to a difference of about $40 million.

“What is incredibly impressive about the success of the women’s tournament is that it happens despite the obstacles,” Kristovic said.

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