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Clark's historic visit to Williams Arena comes with perfect timing

The Caitlin Clark traveling circus hits the Barn on Wednesday night.

Good luck getting tickets. The game at Williams Arena is already an official sellout at 14,625, the seventh consecutive conference sellout on the road this season for Iowa.

Tickets on StubHub had asking prices in the hundreds and in some cases thousands for the right to see the Clark phenomenon, with the incredibly long threes, the laser-strike passes, the pomp and circumstances that continue to change women's sports on the national landscape.

"It's pretty remarkable, actually," Gophers coach Dawn Plitzuweit said. "She's broken just about every record there is."

Iowa already has had four of the top six-watched televised games of the season. The Hawkeyes' game with Ohio State last month drew 1.93 million viewers on NBC, the network's highest-rated women's game since 2010. The 18,660 who jammed Ohio State's arena that game formed the biggest indoor crowd for women's basketball this season.

At the center of it: Clark. Homegrown in Iowa as a high school star at Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines and then staying at home to play with the Hawkeyes, the Clark phenomenon that has been going on for years at Carver-Hawkeye Arena has sprawled across the nation. Nearly 10 million people watched Iowa lose to LSU in last year's NCAA final.

Clark currently has scored 3,617 points, after surpassing Washington's Kelsey Plum (3,527) for the NCAA's career scoring mark on Feb. 16; Iowa fans paid upwards of $3,000 for the right to sit courtside for that game. Still on the record horizon: Lynette Woodard, Pete Maravich and Pearl Moore.

Woodard scored 3,649 while playing for Kansas from 1977-81, when the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was overseeing the sport. That stands as the women's Division I record.

Maravich scored 3,667 in three seasons for LSU. Moore, who played at Francis Marion, scored 4,061 points playing in AIAW's Division II.

Clark is the first Division I player to score more than 3,500 points, get more than 1,000 assists (she's currently at 1,037) and 850 or more rebounds (907).

She has 18 career games with 30 or more points and 10 or more assists. Nobody else in women's college basketball in the past 25 seasons has more than two.

Clark's name is everywhere. Kansas City quarterback Pat Mahomes was asked about her in the run-up to the Super Bowl. Iowa coach Lisa Bluder has compared Clark's popularity with Taylor Swift.

Clark could catch Woodard by scoring 32 and, conceivably, Maravich by scoring 50, at Williams Arena.

To Lynx President of Basketball Operations and coach Cheryl Reeve, what about all the hype, all the press, all the attention, all the points?

All very real for a player who had kept her decision on whether to enter the 2024 WNBA draft to herself. "Those of us who use analytics to project a player, we all have different things we lean into as far as projections," Reeve said. "She's really strong in all those models. She's going to be a great player in the WNBA."

'Perfect moment'

But it's not only Clark.

Yes, she's everywhere, reportedly raking in upward of $800,000 in name, image and likeness (NIL) money, leading an Iowa team that has a great chance to return to the NCAA title game.

But to Nicole LaVoi, director at the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, it's more than that. Clark is riding the crest of a wave that's been building for a while.

"Caitlin Clark is coming along at a perfect moment," LaVoi said. "The return is there [for those who invest in women's sports], industry is getting involved. She's become the poster woman for all of it. It's exciting."

But not necessarily isolated.

Locally, the women's pro hockey team (PWHL Minnesota) and preprofessional soccer team (Aurora) are drawing, as is Gophers volleyball. The WNBA had its highest regular-season ratings in 21 years and its highest attendance in 13 last summer. The finals between Las Vegas and New York averaged 728,000 viewers. Game 5 had a peak viewership of 1.3 million.

In Clark, LaVoi sees a fantastic player with a wonderful story who has arrived at an inflection point for women's sports. "She's a generational talent, for sure," LaVoi said. "But look at the young talent."

Freshmen JuJu Watkins (USC) and Hannah Hidalgo (Notre Dame) are second and third behind Clark (32.1 points per game) in the nation in scoring. Watkins — who will hit the Big Ten along with USC next season — is averaging 28.2 points, more than Clark as a freshman, and Hidalgo is at 23.7.

"The quality of women's basketball across the board is insane," LaVoi said. "Because of Clark, people are watching. But I think that interest will be sustained."

Reeve agreed that Clark's timing is perfect.

"If this was 10 years ago, or even seven, it wouldn't have happened," she said. "The [rise] of women's sports is part of the phenomenon of Caitlin Clark. Kelsey Plum was a big name, but nothing like this. Some of it is where we're at today, the wave of enthusiasm in women's sports is at an all-time high."

And investment is coming. LaVoi mentioned firms such as Allied Bank, Gatorade, Visa, State Farm and Michelob as leaders in this area with women's sports. ESPN recently signed an eight-year, $920 million deal with the NCAA that includes an estimated $520 million for women's basketball — a 10-fold jump over the previous deal.

Carolyn Peck coached Purdue to the 1999 NCAA title, the only Big Ten team to win one. She was part of the early days of the WNBA and now does TV work for the Las Vegas Aces and ESPN.

She remembers a time when women's basketball on TV was basically only UConn and Tennessee when Pat Summitt was coaching there. Not anymore. She's also noticed a change in the fan base.

"It used to be our fan base was an older crowd," Peck said. "Now students are painting their faces, standing in line, rushing to the good seats. That just warms my heart."

'Transformative figure'

Clark has an army of young kids who line up for autographs everywhere she plays. Reeve loves how Clark has "leaned in" to this part of it, inspiring young players, particularly young girls. She's not alone.

"I think what Caitlin has done, with the fanfare, is unlike anything else," Plitzuweit said.

For Reeve, it's the way Clark has done what she's done that's key. As a coach, Reeve is blown away by Clark's passing abilities. But for the fans, it's the near-half-court three-pointers. Much as Steph Curry changed the NBA with his amazing range and release, Clark is doing the same.

"Clark's shot-making ability from distance is a big draw," Reeve said. "… This three-ball thing separates [her]. That's where you get the phenomenon of Caitlin Clark."

Clark and the Hawkeyes played an exhibition against DePaul last October in Iowa's football stadium and 55,646 fans came. Nebraska hosted Omaha in a volleyball match in Memorial Stadium and 92,003 came.

Nearly 15,000 will be in Williams Arena.

Gophers women's basketball radio analyst Lynnette Sjoquist will be calling Wednesday's game. She graduated from Cannon Falls in 1971. This was pre-Title IX, before organized girls high school sports, before colleges were offering women scholarships.

"I was born too soon," she joked.

Back in the day, Sjoquist and her sister had to join the barnstorming All-American Redheads, a team that traveled constantly, playing nearly every night in small towns, in order to keep playing.

A half-century later, it's a whole different scene.

"It's almost overwhelming," she said. "I just think it's unbelievable, maybe long overdue. It took a long time. And [Clark] is maybe the transformative figure that's making it all come to fruition. I'm just saying, 'Hallelujah!'"