Caitlin Clark got people's attention. There's plenty of talent in the game to make them stay

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CLEVELAND — These are heady times for women’s basketball and, by extension, women’s sports.

Caitlin Clark is a household name. Iowa and LSU’s rematch of last year’s title game drew more than 12 million viewers, such a bonkers number it beat all but one college football game this season. The best seats for Friday night’s Final Four games will set you back more than $7,000, each, and it’s around $400 just to get in the door.

"This is exactly what we wanted for women's basketball," Clark said Thursday. "But also I feel like it could have been a thing a long time ago."

It definitely could have. The 1996 Olympics. The start of the WNBA. The 1999 World Cup. Even some of those formidable UConn teams. It seemed in those moments as if women’s sports and women athletes were finally going to get the recognition they deserved.

But the hope, and the hype, didn’t last. It’s fair to ask why this time is different.

Or whether it is, given Clark, who has been at the center of much of the frenzy, will soon be off to the WNBA.

As Caitlin Clark, shown here on the right at Iowa's practice Thursday, prepares to leave for the WNBA, the college game is in good hands.
As Caitlin Clark, shown here on the right at Iowa's practice Thursday, prepares to leave for the WNBA, the college game is in good hands.

"I don't know if we can sustain the numbers we had last Monday night for a whole season," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "But I do not think that our game is going to go down. I think there's too much great young talent. I think there's unbelievable coaches at this level. And I think the world has caught on to what they've been missing.

"Our game has been really great for a long time and I think people have just missed the boat on it," she added. "And I don't think they're going to want to miss anymore."

There are reasons to believe Bluder is right. ESPN is heavily invested because of its new TV contract with the NCAA – significant of a raise as it is, it’s still too low – and it’s shown with its wall-to-wall coverage during March Madness. Big as the Iowa-LSU number was, the 6.2 million who stuck around for Southern Cal-UConn and the 3.1 million who watched Oregon State-South Carolina a day earlier might be even more impressive.

While Clark’s presence has become ubiquitous, there are other stars who have caught the public’s eye. Southern Cal freshman phenom JuJu Watkins and LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson star in commercials that are in heavy rotation.

And anyone who tunes in Friday night will get a reminder that Clark wasn’t even the most famous player in her class coming out of high school. That title belonged to Paige Bueckers, the first player to be AP Player of the Year as a freshman.

Bueckers missed all of last season with a torn ACL. This after missing half of her sophomore year with a tibial plateau fracture.

"I don't know that she would have the kind of impact that Caitlin's had because they have different personalities, different games. They approach the game differently. And it works for both of them. So I don’t know," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

"But it would have been nice to find out."

But the game has always had stars. Cheryl Miller. Lisa Leslie. Diana Taurasi. Sue Bird. Maya Moore. Candace Parker. Chamique Holdsclaw. Sabrina Ionescu. The list goes on and on and on. What it needed was the foundation to support them.

Now, besides social media making players more accessible than ever, there is investment from the power brokers. And that goes beyond financial support.

"We've been held back, quite frankly. We've been held back a very, very long time," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.

The NCAA was famously shamed into having to care about the women’s tournament after the great weight room fiasco of 2021. And it still has issues it needs to address. Like officiating. Not noticing differences in the 3-point lines at one of its regional sites.

But it has made improvements. The NCAA began offering hospitality packages at its regional sites last year and increased the number this year because of demand. There’s now an open practice Saturday, the day before the national championship game. The NCAA’s social media team has stepped up its game, posting clips of big shots in (almost) real time and fun interactions with players.

They might be small things. But it’s a recognition that not only is the game growing, it is worth whatever investment the NCAA puts into it.

"(Post-COVID) we've seen an uptick of people gravitating toward going to live sporting events and watching live sporting event, and women's basketball … (because of) the star power, the performance, the disbursement of talent, all of those things, we've been there and available for those fans to get on the train of what's really an exciting sport to watch and be involved in," said Lynn Holzman, vice president of women’s basketball for the NCAA.

Clark isn’t going far when this season ends. Fans can still see her play in the WNBA, and her matchups against Angel Reese or Bueckers could promote the kind of growth men’s basketball saw after Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced off in the 1979 title game and then took their rivalry to the NBA.

Because it’s not interest in a particular player or team or coach that will keep the game growing. It’s interest in the game overall now that there's a structure in place to support it.

"Because of what some of these kids have done, they've created a fan base of women's basketball that they'll watch a great women's game, regardless of whether they have a rooting interest or not in the game. They will go to the game not just because it's their team playing," Auriemma said. "That's taken some time, but it's there now. And where it goes from here, I think it's going to be really, really important.

"It's a moment, like people are saying, but it's more than a moment," he added. "Sometimes moments become minutes, and minutes become hours, and hours become days. And the next thing you know it becomes part of the national pastime."

That's what Clark has always wanted. She might be the gateway for a lot of people, but if they stick around, they'll know what Clark and other women's fans have long known.

There's so much more to see.

Contributing: Steve Berkowitz

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caitlin Clark Era ending, but women's basketball finally taking off