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Mar 18, 2024 12:12 pm

Brimming popularity, star power has everyone watching women’s sports

Caitlin Clark

“Everyone watches women’s sports.”

So reads the phrase on TOGETHXR’s $45 t-shirts and hoodies popularized by some of the giants in the game, a statement garment worn under South Carolina coach Dawn Staley’s blazer last week and by UCLA head coach Cori Close to the press conference to break down the highest tournament seed in program history on Sunday night.

“I think there’s such an amazing, you can feel there’s like a moment in women in sport happening right now,” Close said. “I feel like there’s this moment in this NCAA Tournament run, this moment in Southern California right now. I don’t want people to miss it. This is really special. Lots of people are wearing these shirts, Everybody watches women’s sports. Some people are predicting that the ratings are going to be better, for the first time in history, in the women’s side of the NCAA Tournament than the men’s.

“We don’t want to take anything away from the men’s. This is not about taking something away. I love the men’s basketball March Madness tournament. This is about lifting up a new level of women’s basketball. There’s a lot of eyeballs on it.”

Former Lakers guard Matt Barnes, who went to UCLA, said on his podcast he knows more women’s basketball players than men’s basketball players for the first time he can recall.

“I just think we’re at a different time and place. I hope people really get behind this,” Close said, pointing out the men’s team is not playing this week. “This really is a special moment. We need to get behind these women.

“This is bigger than just our individual program. This is about growing the game.”

TOGETHXR merch is one example that the game and its popularity are exploding. A media and apparel company founded by former WNBA and UConn guard Sue Bird, soccer legend Alex Morgan, snowboarder Chloe Kim and swimmer Simone Manuel.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma noted in January the women’s game seemingly shifted gears in the past year. Auriemma is 132-23 in NCAA Tournament games and the winningest head coach in postseason play.

“It seem like this past year especially, there’s been kind of a breakthrough,” Auriemma said. “People are so much more aware and engaged. ‘Hey, let me go see what the hoopla is.’ Part of it is and the product has been great, great performances by a lot of terrific players.”

There are other figures that point to the rapid rise in the game. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese are two of the highest-grossing athletes in college sports with NIL values comparable or higher than the top men’s athletes.

Auriemma was once alone on the top tier of coaching salary in women’s basketball. He’s now one of 18 coaches making at least $1 million, according to USA Today’s coaching salary database, and even with South Carolina’s Dawn Staley at $3.1 million. LSU coach Kim Mulkey is the highest paid with a $3.26 million salary in 2023-24. She makes more than men’s basketball coach Matt McMahon ($2.7 million).

Credit in part Clark’s popularity, an undeniable phenomenon even opponents and coaches acknowledge. Iowa games aired on NBC, FOX and ESPN in the regular season. A record regular-season TV audience tuned in for Iowa-Ohio State and more than 800,000 clicked into the FOX-launched TikTok Caitlin Clark cam for Iowa-Maryland.

Clark and Iowa helped set attendance records in 30 of 32 games not played on a neutral court this season and the Hawkeyes set an attendance record for the second consecutive season in Iowa City. At away games, including February dates at Rutgers, Maryland and Purdue, Clark brought secondary ticket market prices to record levels and then returned to the court postgame to sign autographs for adoring fans.

“I was that same kid a few years ago,” Clark said. “I remember going to games like this. I remember wanting to high-five, wanting an autograph, wanting to catch a T-shirt. It does make (their) whole week, and it really takes a second out of your day. That’s how I was raised, to go out of your way to show kindness to somebody else.”

UCLA plays at Pauley Pavilion, its homecourt, in the first two rounds, then would advance to Albany, N.Y., for the regional semifinal and final. Their two possible opponents in those games are No. 3 seed LSU and No. 1 seed Iowa.

Those teams were the starring attractions last March, when ratings records were set with more than 12.6 million viewers at the peak of the LSU’s 102-85 win over Iowa in the championship game. A year prior, UConn and South Carolina drew an audience of 4.85 million viewers.

“It establishes us as one of the very best teams in America,” Iowa’s Lisa Bluder said of the Hawkeyes’ first No. 1 seed since 1992. “It’s just a credit to our recognition, which I’m very happy about. But it’s just a number, right? We got to the championship game last year as a No. 2 seed. We know No. 1 seeds don’t guarantee anything.

The Gamecocks (32-0) are the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, but Staley said her team doesn’t yet know the gravity of the moment they’re stepping into. Fans lined up three hours before the women’s selection show on Sunday.

“I could not write this script of what it looks like — they made it what it looks like,” Staley said Sunday night. “It’s built on organic, genuine love.”

–Field Level Media

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