I had been waiting all season for this. Watching from the court at the Seattle Regional last weekend, I finally learned some the Caitlin Clark experience it’s all about. Dagger 3-pointers, of course. But one-handed passes also flowed to every corner of the pitch. Sliding dribble drives past stunned defenders. And more rebounds and sprint layups than I could count.
During the day Iowa’s 97-83 win over powerhouse Louisville in the eighth round, Clark dominated: 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
“It felt pretty powerful,” Clark said after the game with a sly smile.
That’s what the women’s game is now. A sport’s popularity often rises through the power of its story, through stories that propel the game and compel us to watch. This year’s NCAA tournament is full of them, along with the talent and high stakes that make these stories meaningful.
Yes, the Louisiana State women are exciting, with the jack-of-all-trades Angel Reese and a fiery, pink boa-wearing coach, Kim Mulkey, whose outfits would make Elton John swoon. And who can take root against a team as cohesive as Virginia Tech?
But there may not be a better story in sports than Clark vs. Aliyah Boston. This week, Clark was named National Player of the Year, replacing Boston, the six-foot-tall forward who has produced numerous memorable moments as he takes her team to three straight Final Fours and the 2022 national championship.
Boston could be the top pick in April’s WNBA draft. But first, she and her outstanding coach, Dawn Staley, will try to prove that South Carolina can be a dynasty by getting past Clark and Iowa in Friday night’s Final Four game.
The power of the women’s game for high stakes narrative and immersive play has been there for years. But it is not always presented with the right attention. Women’s basketball is part of a $34 million broadcast contract that bundles all NCAA championships except football and men’s basketball in the same deal.
Change could be on the way soon: This week, as the NCAA made its decision on the next broadcast contract, several women’s coaches argued it’s high time for the union to sell the rights to the women’s tournament separately, possibly a financial windfall in the range of $81 million to $112 million per year, with one guess.
“It should happen,” Staley said. “We are in the place where there is a lot of demand for us. I do believe that women’s basketball can stand on its own and be a huge revenue-generating sport that could, to some extent, do what men’s basketball has done.”
After their tournament games are finally broadcast and streamed as artfully as their male counterparts, the popularity of women’s college basketball is skyrocketing.
Attendance at this year’s NCAA Tournament has skyrocketed.
The same goes for broadcast ratings. Iowa’s Louisville regional final drew 2.49 million viewers, more than any NBA game on ESPN this season. Viewership for round of 16 matches increased by 73 percent compared to last season, setting a record for total minutes watched.
But this is about more than basketball and sports within the borders of the United States. What we see during March Madness symbolizes a steady shift in the popularity of women’s sports across much of the world.
“This isn’t just a moment,” said Cheryl Cooky, a Purdue professor who studies the gender gap in sports. “It’s more than that. It is the cumulative effect of a decades-long struggle for equality and recognition. We are at this kind of tipping point of a new era and the momentum is so great it is unstoppable.”
Beginning in the 1970s, tennis was the first professional women’s sport to gain widespread acceptance, earning millions of dollars for its players.
Then came the WNBA in the 1990s. In the past 20 years it has grown from a start-up to a competition with so-called super teams and recognizable stars.
Other sports have the same ambitions and are gaining momentum.
It is the National Women’s Soccer League, which lays a solid foundation for professional women’s soccer in the United States.
It’s 87,000 fans who jammed at Wembley Stadium in London last July for the final of the European Women’s Championship between England and Germany. a recording for the men’s and women’s tournament. Are 25,000 at home at Newcastle United last year for a fourth-tier match in the English professional women’s league.
When the New Zealand women’s rugby union team made it to the 2022 World Cup final, they played to a sell-out home crowd of 40,000, doubling the previous finals record.
Female boxers and mixed martial artists were a popular sideshow in the not-too-distant past. Today they often are the show.
I could go on, but you get the point. Investors certainly do, and they come armed with cash, the lifeblood of any sport trying to appeal to fans.
Currently a collection of cities – Nashville; Oakland, California; and Toronto to name three – hoping for new WNBA franchises, perhaps buoyed by the recent ones valuation of the Seattle Storm on a league-record $151 million.
In India, premier league cricket broadcasting rights have recently been sold for around $117 million.
According to Kara Nortman, a Los Angeles-based venture capitalist whose company, Monarch Collective, focuses on supporting women’s sports with pioneering investment dollars, betting on women’s sports is a new frontier in sports investing.
“When I decided to focus on sports, my initial question was, ‘Should it be all sports or women’s sports?'” says Nortman, co-founder of Angel City football clubthe Los Angeles NWSL team, which averaged 19,000 fans at the top during its inaugural season last year.
“I came to the realization: many people invest in men’s sports. From a dollar point of view, it’s more difficult to influence there. But in women’s sport there is a huge financial and cultural opportunity to make a difference, increase returns and get people to pay attention.”
With the Final Four just around the corner, now they’re paying attention, fans new to the women’s game and old die-hards alike engrossed in a powerful new chapter in an unfolding story.