Caitlin Clark’s Debut Was the Most-Watched WNBA Game Ever on ESPN

Why this is such a big win for women’s basketball and young athletes.

Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fact checked by Sarah ScottFact checked by Sarah Scott

Caitlin Clark, who has lived her own Cinderella story in the world of college basketball, began the next chapter of her fairytale on Disney’s biggest stage.

The basketball superstar’s highly anticipated WNBA regular season debut on May 14, 2024, streamed on Disney+, as well as aired on ESPN2 and ESPN+. It was the first live sporting event to air on Disney+. And it paid off for the network.

The broadcast across all platforms brought in 2.1 million viewers. At one point, viewership peaked at 2.3 million to watch Clark's Indiana Fever face off against the Connecticut Sun. The Sun ended up winning the game 92-71 but Clark ended the night with 20 points.

Clark's Legacy is Perfect For Disney+

Clark's talent and career success are the stuff Disney dreams are made of. Not to discredit the hard work and determination she undoubtedly put into the sport along with the support of her team, her accomplishments and meteoric rise at such a young age make her a hero in the eyes of teens who are now watching her every move.

“I think there are several reasons that Caitlin Clark has had such a massive impact on teen girls,” says Joe Mauceri, Sports Anchor for PIX11 News in New York. “For starters, she's an unbelievable basketball player and the timing of her success has provided the perfect storm for stardom.”

At just 22 years old, Clark became a household name because of her talent on the court playing for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Her electrifying college basketball performances, which include her knack for easily landing mid-court shots and three-pointers, consistently filled arenas and led to sold-out home games.

Throughout her collegiate career, she shattered dozens of NCAA and Big Ten records. Perhaps her most impressive was scoring the most points by any college player in NCAA History—in both the men’s and women’s leagues—with 3,951 points. Her trophy case is filled with well-earned awards and accolades.

Her popularity reached new heights during the 2024 NCAA Championship series, drawing millions of television viewers. The championship game between Iowa and South Carolina attracted approximately 18.7 million viewers, the most ever measured for a college women’s basketball game, and more viewers than the men’s final.

Despite her personal success so far, Mauceri says Clark was still viewed at times as an "underdog" in college at Iowa.

“While the Hawkeyes were a very good team,” he explains, “they didn't have the history of a school like UCONN, and they also had to take on a current dynasty in South Carolina.” And everyone, especially Disney, loves a good “underdog” story.

<p>Mike Lawrence/NBAE via Getty Images</p>

Mike Lawrence/NBAE via Getty Images

Clark's NIL Influence

Even before stepping foot on a WNBA court, Clark was breaking records. During the WNBA draft, she hit another TV milestone, with ESPN reporting a new all-time record number of 2.5 million people tuning in, which was four times the amount of viewers from 2023. After the Indiana Fever selected her with the No.1 pick in the draft, her jersey sold out within an hour, breaking records for the licensed sportswear retailer Fanatics.

The Associated Press reports Clark's first home pre-season game brought in more than 13,000 fans. That's a number nearly three times larger than the 4,000 fans per game the team averaged during its 2023 season home games.

Mauceri says part of Clark's success also points to increased visibility for college women’s basketball, which includes commercial and television deals, thanks to the new Name, Image, and Licensing rules, or NIL. According to On3, Clark ranked fourth among all NIL-eligible athletes, earning at least $3.1 million from 11 known NIL deals, some of which include Nike, Gatorade, Buick, State Farm, and H&R Block.

“Commercials can build athletes into superhuman characters or make them more relatable by allowing them to show their personalities off the court,” Mauceri says. 

The playing field, when it comes to exposure at the very least, is slowly becoming more level. But when it comes to salary not so much. As the top draft pick, Clark will make $76,535 as a rookie this year. According to CNN, by comparison, the top NBA pick will earn $10.5 million. In the WNBA, the highest-paid player made $242,000. But the minimum salary in the NBA is more than a million dollars.

Clark certainly isn’t the first female sports role model that has existed, Mauceri says, with Billie Jean King, Sue Bird, Serena and Venus Williams, and the ’99 U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team all coming to mind.

“What has changed is that professional leagues for women are growing to the point where girls, and their parents perhaps, believe playing these sports can be viable careers in the future,” he says. “So I think we'll see more peak athletes, like Clark, start to gain more attention from young fans.”

<p>Michael Reaves / Getty Images</p>

Michael Reaves / Getty Images

An Inspiration For Young Athletes

We already know the benefits of enrolling our kids in team sports, and there’s been a ton of research on how it improves not only the physical and mental health of children and adolescents. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, it also improves social well-being, encourages healthy eating behaviors, and improves academic success.

It is easy to see why Clark’s journey from becoming a college phenom to a professional player is a great source of inspiration for young girls who play sports. She’s set a standard of excellence both on and off the court while showing resilience and challenging gender norms.

“It’s powerful for people to have role models that they can look up to and relate to,” says Cassidy Preston, PhD, who is a Mental Performance Coach and founder of CEP Mindset. “It provides them with a spark where they think ‘I could do that too’ or ‘that looks fun, let me give it a try.’”

When teen athletes witness the success of Clark, Dr. Preston says it ignites a sense of motivation and a determination to work on their own skills and attempt to build up to a place similar to where Clark has landed. In turn, he says, it not only fosters personal growth but creates a positive self-image and healthier mental well-being.

“It helps them tap into the mental skills of athletes, building on traits like confidence, resilience, composure, and teamwork,” he explains. “When we watch others exhibit certain traits, especially someone we admire and can relate to, it can inspire us to cultivate those traits in our sports and lives.”

Still, Dr. Preston believes more work needs to be done to cultivate more female sports role models to keep the momentum going, specifically, “providing the platforms for the great athletes out there to be seen and have the opportunity to be those role models.” Airing Clark’s game on an easily accessible and kid-friendly platform like Disney+ is just the start.

“Personally, I have two young daughters,” he says. “I want them to be able to easily watch great female athletes on TV from a variety of sports.

The Pressure Is On

While the pressure is extremely high for Clark as she enters the next phase of her career with the WNBA, her built-in fanbase will most likely tune into whatever channel broadcasts the games. Disney+ could help expand that fan base even further.

“The level of competition from college to the WNBA will be a massive step up for any athlete,” Mauceri says, who believes her popularity could grow even more if she continues with the same type of stellar performances she produced in college.

“If that happens, it's possible that she could help increase the popularity of the entire WNBA just as Michael Jordan helped grow the popularity of the NBA,” he predicts.

“However, if she is just a good player at the next level I think her popularity will crest and fans will move on to the next thing,” he cautions, “whether that's another basketball star, like Paige Bueckers, or another sport like soccer.”

Let’s hope that Clark continues to inspire and elevate the game for generations to come. After all, that would be the perfect Disney storybook ending. 

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