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Opinion: The Caitlin Clark effect is a feature, not a bug, of this moment in sports

Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

Still on the fence about women’s college basketball? Well, at this point I feel sorry for you.

Amy Bass - Courtesy Rodney Bedsole
Amy Bass - Courtesy Rodney Bedsole

The 68-team field for the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament is set, which means for the third time, the NCAA will use the same logo and branding —  “March Madness” —  for the women and the men, a change that came after Oregon’s Sedona Prince (who now plays for Texas Christian University) raised alarm bells in 2021 regarding gender inequities in everything from food service to weight room facilities.

Still, this year’s tournament doesn’t feel like a turning point for women’s basketball. We have crowed about a lot of such moments in the past. We said it in 1996 when the US women’s teams swept Olympic gold across softball, soccer and basketball, thinking it was a coming-of-age for Title IX, and we’ve said it many times since. We said it last year, when the women’s tourney topped the previous year’s numbers by over 100%, with some 10 million viewers watching LSU and Iowa vie for the title.

And while we don’t exactly know what this year’s tournament will bring, it’s clear that we don’t have to make a case for women’s basketball anymore. Rather than an inflection point, this March Madness feels like a coronation.

Crowning Caitlin Clark

At the center, of course, is the queen: Caitlin Clark. The University of Iowa senior, who was born and raised in the state,  is the most famous face in her game right now by far. Her impact on viewership and passion for the sport, especially among those who are new to it, has been seismic, and she is featured along with two other top players (South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso and UCLA’s Kiki Rice) in an upcoming ESPN+  documentary series, “Full Court Press.”

I feel bad (almost) for all of those rabid “Pistol Pete” Maravich fans who came out of hiding (in a manner reminiscent of all those closet Margaret Court fans who suddenly had something to say about Serena Williams’ stats) when Clark broke the NCAA Division I all-time scoring record previously held by Maravich.

They’re going to be missing out while they continue to stew that Clark’s record, which she hit in Iowa’s 93-83 win over Ohio State in a game where she netted 35 points with nine assists, six rebounds and three steals, is problematic because Maravich wasn’t allowed to play varsity at LSU his freshman year and there wasn’t a shot clock or a 3-point line and he did it in fewer games, and blah blah blah blah.

Caitlin Clark signs autographs for fans after the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Williams Arena on February 28, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. - David Berding/Getty Images
Caitlin Clark signs autographs for fans after the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Williams Arena on February 28, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. - David Berding/Getty Images

You’ve heard all of this. And all of this is true. But it isn’t how records work, with sport continuing to evolve — new technologies, rules and, importantly, shifts in culture and law. The segregated league Maravich played in is largely a thing of the past, gone the way of the Negro Leagues in baseball, which prevented some of baseball’s best pitchers from ever facing its best batters.

We likely are going to be talking about Clark for a good long while, someday telling our grandchildren what it was like to witness the ascension of sport royalty in real time.  And there will be a lot of us.  Viewership for that record-breaking Iowa-Ohio State game peaked at 4.4 million, the biggest regular season audience for a women’s game in 25 years.

At this point, keeping track of the soaring viewership and attendance statistics is enough to make anyone’s head spin, with unprecedented numbers coming at every turn.  Some 4.5 million viewers watched Iowa’s overtime conference title win over Nebraska, another record.  And for those lucky enough to get tickets? Just about every women’s conference tournament set a record, with the Big Ten selling out for the first time (109,000).

March Madness could anoint new household names

Right now, Clark is Messi.  She is Ledecky.  She is LeBron.  She is Ohtani.  She is Serena.  She is Simone.

But as exciting as it is, we aren’t just watching Clark take her throne — we are watching the sport that she transcends evolve alongside her, ahead of her and behind her, meaning that yes, she is a generational player but she is not solely carrying women’s basketball — or women’s sport — on her shoulders. We have coaches building on the foundations set by the likes of Pat Summit, Muffet McGraw, and Geno Auriemma, who is looking for UConn to add one more title (despite having faced a season of extraordinary injury) while carving out their own legacies.

Indeed, the differences between LSU’s Kim Mulkey (the highest paid coach in women’s basketball) and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley were never clearer than after the brawl in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) title game. The Gamecocks downed the Tigers 79-72 but will lose standout center Cardoso (whose dazzling three-pointer against Tennessee, the first of her career, sent her team to the final) to an altercation-related suspension for the first game of the tournament.

To be sure, Staley’s team, ranked first overall, is the one to watch —  the only team in the nation to enter the tournament undefeated. What was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Staley, who lost forward Aaliyah Boston and a whole lot more to the WNBA, has turned into a best-ever season, with incredible offensive depth, including 3-point queens Te-Hina Paopao and Bree Hall, and a wall of defense that looks to make sure Clark ends her college career without a national title.

Mulkey’s LSU team, which wants to defend its 2023 title, brings back to the tournament Angel Reese — who excitingly went toe-to-toe with Clark in last year’s Final Four, sparking talk of a Bird versus Magic “showtime” kind of battle.  Players from multiple teams in this tournament, such as those on ESPN’s All-America team, are household names in their own right: UConn’s Paige Bueckers, Stanford’s Cameron Brink, Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo, and USC’s JuJu Watkins, who became the fourth-highest scoring freshman in NCAA women’s basketball history, her 801 points scooting right past Clark’s 799.

The glorious moment, a long time coming

The excitement that surrounds this year’s women’s tournament is part of a bigger landscape, one that feels like a saturation point for women’s sport in America, in which the women’s side of things is taking up as much — if not more — space than the men’s.  Setting aside the so-called Taylor Swift Effect in football — women composed an all-time high 47.5% of the Super Bowl’s total audience, establishing, yet again, that duh, women watch sports — we would be hard pressed to find another moment when women’s sports were just, well, everywhere. It’s happening at a frantic pace for fans and sportswriters alike.

Last summer, 92,000 people gathered in Nebraska to watch a women’s volleyball game, Coco Gauff owned the US Open (and the weeks leading up to it), and the return of Simone Biles, who garnered both national and world titles in a stunning comeback, redefined everyone’s standard of greatness, while ensuring a loud buzz around this summer’s Olympic Games. January’s launch of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) has seen sold-out games, record attendance numbers and fans who make sure that outside of an Eras concert (and probably for the first time in professional hockey history, but don’t quote me on that), no one has ever sung Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”  with more verve.

Molson, “the official beer of hockey,” launched its PWHL partnership on International Women’s Day earlier this month with its “see her name” campaign, in which they moved their logo up and players’ names down on the back of game day jerseys so that long hair didn’t obscure player identity. “We covered our name,” the accompanying commercial states, “so hers can be seen.”

Meanwhile, the US Women’s National Team, a veritable soccer dynasty, just won the first-ever Concacaf W Gold Cup behind the force that is goalie Alyssa Naeher, erasing some of the memories from last year’s early departure from the World Cup. Their professional counterpart, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), opened the 2024 season last week with the first arena ever built expressly for an NWSL team, and no one was happier to be sitting in Kansas City’s CPKC Stadium than the Mahomes family, which is part of the ownership group. The league closed its 2023 regular season logging record-setting attendance, the announcement of two new franchises and a new media rights agreement to the tune of $240 million.

That rights agreement represents the money that has been lining up behind women’s sports, including last year’s WNBA contract with Ion Television and ESPN. “I think it’s time,” E.W. Scripps (owner of Ion) CEO Adam Symson told The Athletic after signing on the dotted line, “for women’s sports to be showcased in a way that its fans deserve. It’s time for the league, the owners and the players to have a platform where they can showcase the athleticism and the drama that is the WNBA.”

That the WNBA’s historic media contract expires in 2025, Rebecca Lobo pointed out on X (formerly Twitter), is kismet and could lead to unparalleled valuation. “It’s massive that Caitlin Clark will play this summer,” the basketball legend posted. “She will drive the W ratings and league value to broadcast partners in a way no women’s player ever has.”

But Clark, who is a finalist for the AAU’s Sullivan Award, one of only three athletes to be nominated twice (she won last year), isn’t carrying the weight of women’s sport alone.  The burden is increasingly shared, with millions of viewers and fans emerging with a force that is, in the best of ways, hard to keep up with.

This does not mean — and let’s be crystal clear here — that inequity in sport is a thing of the past or that there aren’t still important parity issues, particularly in terms of investment, pay and media coverage. But in a moment when the political landscape for women often feels (and is) so grim please remember this: A lot of people aren’t just watching women — they’re cheering for them. Because what could be more glorious than seeing boys and girls scrambling after Caitlin Clark, offering her their handmade posters that declare their fandom to the world in hopes that she will scribble her name?

Nothing.

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