Women’s Sports Seizes a Prime Moment to Shine Thanks to Math, Gravity and the Perfect Storm Around March Madness (Column)

No matter who prevails next Sunday at the NCAA’s championship game, 2024’s March Madness will go down in history as a milestone moment for women’s sports. Not just in the college basketball realm — but for female athletes overall.

In a perfect storm, the annual bracket-bonkers frenzy around the NCAA college basketball tournament has conferred a level of respect to the women’s game that is rarely been seen across sports media, but for the quadrennial exception of the Women’s World Cup. It’s happening this year for all the right reasons – basically, math and gravity. The games have been too good to ignore and the stats put up by such players as the University of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, Louisiana State University’s Angel Reese, USC’s freshman phenom JuJu Watkins and University of Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers are too eye-popping to not analyze.

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This time around, the women’s tournament has had it all: generationally talented superstars, fierce Division I school rivalries that have been brewing for years, a mini-scandal around a successful and sartorially adventurous coach and — at the last minute — another shocking but perhaps not surprising example of the extra burden shouldered by female athletes. This is the stuff that drives discussion, debate and shouting matches across ESPN and sports radio and podcasts all day and night. It’s the stuff that has long fueled excitement and interest when men have the ball.

And adding heft to all of this is the fact that NCAA women’s basketball players now have a well-established path to turn professional in the U.S. via the WNBA. Moreover, the new era of NIL deals for college athletes has significantly increased the earning power for female stars. Monday night’s incredible Elite 8 matchup between University of Iowa, led by Clark, and Louisiana State University, powered by Reese, may have sown the seeds of a Larry Bird-Magic Johnson hoops rivalry that begins in college and extends into the professional paint. The players in this year’s tournament have never known a world without the WNBA, which marked its 25th anniversary last year. After Iowa’s win over LSU – a closely watched rematch of last year’s NCAA championship game in which LSU prevailed – a breathless Clark joined anchor Scott Van Pelt live at the top of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Monday night from the arena floor, wearing her freshly printed “Final Four” tournament hat. It felt like watching generational change happen before our eyes. (ESPN reported that Monday’s LSU-Iowa game delivered 12.3 million viewers, making it the sports powerhouse’s most-watched women’s college basketball game ever.)

“The way the country has supported us and our team and really rallied around this team and multiple teams all around the country – it’s like we’ve just elevated the game so much. That’s the coolest part for me,” said Clark, who has declared her intention to take part in the 2025 WNBA draft.

A tidal wave of success, of course, also brings scrutiny. Kim Mulkey, LSU’s dynamic women’s basketball coach, has been under the microscope in recent days thanks to a deep-dive Washington Post profile. Mulkey came out swinging by criticizing the Post and sports features writer Kent Babb at an LSU news conference days before the story was published March 30. Babb’s long read is a richly detailed, balanced look at Mulkey’s pros and cons as a coach as well as her struggles with family members and her penchant for flashy outfits on game day. It’s clearly the product of months of research and reporting – the kind of journalistic investment that is yet another signal of public interest in the women’s game reaching new heights.

On March 31, however, another newspaper story involving LSU elbowed aside the Post’s finely drawn feature in the cultural conversation. The Los Angeles Times stirred outrage with a preview column on that day’s Elite 8 game between LSU and UCLA. Making a point about the public profile of both teams, columnist Bill Bloch described LSU as being akin to the NCAA’s “dirty debutants” while UCLA amounted to “milk and cookies.” The mind reels. Block quickly apologized for having “tried to be clever in my phrasing about one team’s attitude, using alliteration while not understanding the deeply offensive connotation or associations.”

Did the drama around LSU this week affect the team’s performance on Monday, when they were defeated by Iowa 94-87? Clark powered her team’s performance with an astounding 41 points, 7 rebounds and 12 assists. Reese delivered a dominant 17 points, 20 rebounds and 4 assists for her team.

Reese had tears in her eyes at the team’s post-game press conference as she discussed her final outing as a collegiate player. The insults that were hurled at her and the LSU team over the weekend were unfortunately part and parcel of being on the pedestal after winning the NCAA women’s basketball championship last year.

“I’ve been through so much. I’ve been attacked so many times – sexualized, threatened,” Reese said. In the same breath she added with great clarity of vision: “I’m unapologetically me. I’m always going to leave that mark and be who I am.”

In that spirit go the last NCAA women standing — undaunted, unbowed and on to Friday’s Final Four games and Sunday’s championship. What a season.

(Pictured: LSU’s Angel Reese, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and USC’s JuJu Watkins)

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