College Basketball’s Biggest Stars on Social Media Are Women: Data Viz

Women’s college basketball games are regularly breaking TV audience records, but the men’s tournament still draws better ratings overall. Per Nielsen, the nine most-watched games of the first two rounds were from the men’s bracket.

But the women have clearly surpassed the men in one measure of popularity: social media following.

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Among the finalists for the 2024 John R. Wooden Award, which honors the country’s most outstanding college basketball player, seven of the 10 players with the most Instagram followers are female, including the entire top five. On the flip side, seven of the 15 men’s finalists have fewer than 25,000 followers, versus just two of the women.

Leading the way is LSU’s Angel Reese with 2.7 million followers. That’s not only far more than all 15 men’s Wooden finalists combined (960,000), but it’s also more than NBA superstar Anthony Edwards (2 million) and not too far off from phenom and NBA Rookie of the Year favorite Victor Wembanyama (3.7 million).

LSU’s run to the 2023 national championship vaulted Reese into another level of fame. The final between LSU and Iowa was the most-watched women’s college basketball game on record, and Reese gained more than 1 million followers over the course of the tournament.

That level of social media influence has financial rewards. Reese’s 26 endorsement deals rank fourth among all female athletes tracked by SponsorUnited. "Regardless, I'm going to be able to make money,” Reese said in a recent press conference about her decision of whether or not to go pro after this college season.

Behind Reese on the Instagram followers leaderboard is Iowa’s Caitlin Clark with 1.2 million. Like Reese, Clark gained roughly half of those followers during her March Madness run in 2023. The two play each other in the Elite Eight on Monday in what could be Clark’s last college game, as she will go to the WNBA this spring.

UConn’s Paige Bueckers is the last Wooden Award finalist with at least 1 million followers. She’s averaging 28 points per game across the first three rounds of the tournament.

It’s not just the women’s stars who are shining on social media, though. South Carolina freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, for instance, only started three games this season but has more followers than 13 of the 15 men’s Wooden Award finalists.

That’s not to say that men’s college basketball doesn’t have stars. Jared McCain of Duke has 912,000 Instagram followers after making a name for himself earlier in the season with TikTok videos in which he danced, sang or talked about painting his nails. His Blue Devils have also reached the Elite Eight, with McCain scoring 30 points in a second-round win.

The difference in the age requirements to declare for the NBA and WNBA drafts forces women players to stay in college longer and gives them more time to build relationships with fans and amass followers. Men only have to be 19 years old at some point during the calendar year to declare, whereas women have to be 22.

Bueckers is only a junior and will stay in college for the 2024-25 season. Reese has yet to announce a decision. In contrast, Kentucky freshman Rob Dillingham, who has 690,000 Instagram followers and is projected to be a high lottery pick in the NBA draft, won’t return to the Wildcats.

Even if Reese and Clark both go pro, the future of the women’s game is bright with freshmen like USC’s JuJu Watkins, who has 527,000 followers already. She is set for an Elite Eight clash with Bueckers’ Huskies on Monday.

More March Madness stories:

March Madness Exile Pepperdine Makes the Most as Tourney Host
UConn Banks on Basketball’s Value in Football-Driven NCAA
Ousted Cinderellas Still Cash in After March Madness Losses
JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo Lead Next Wave

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