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What impact will Caitlin Clark have on the WNBA?

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, center, sits with coach Lisa Bluder, left, and guard Kate Martin, right, as she finds out her number will be retired, during an Iowa women's basketball team celebration Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa.
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, center, sits with coach Lisa Bluder, left, and guard Kate Martin, right, as she finds out her number will be retired, during an Iowa women's basketball team celebration Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. | Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

Say goodbye to Caitlin Clark, the University of Iowa basketball sensation. On Monday night, she will be drafted by the WNBA, basketball’s version of the witness protection program.

She’ll move to a new place, take on a new identity and start a new life. After the initial excitement of her pro debut wanes, she’ll drop out of sight for most sports fans and they’ll never hear of her again except for when/if she appears in the Olympics.

If an athlete wants to keep things on the down-low, the WNBA is a good place to start.

Quick, name five players in the WNBA. How about three? Two? OK, one (not counting the player who was sent to the Russian gulag for a while).

Even though Clark played four seasons of college basketball, she had another year of eligibility (don’t even try to figure out how many years they are allowed to play in college in this post-COVID-19 era). She should have remained in the college game. What does she gain by passing up another collegiate season to join the WNBA, which is largely irrelevant despite the best efforts of ESPN to force it on the public?

In college, Clark had everything — a national following that is unprecedented in college sports, career scoring records, career 3-point shooting records, two appearances in the national championship game, two national Player of the Year trophies, four first-team All-American certificates, numerous endorsements, millions of dollars.

If you think she had to leave college to get paid, think again. She reportedly has about $3.5 million in NIL deals. She signed endorsement deals with Topps, H&R Block and Nike in 2022; Buick, State Farm, Bose, Goldman Sachs and Gatorade in 2023; a Midwest supermarket chain called Hy-Vee in 2021 (which began selling “Caitlin’s Crunch Time” cereal in January); and several more companies this year.

The first four picks of the WNBA draft are paid a base salary of $76,535 during their rookie seasons (Stephen Curry makes $500,000 per game in the NBA). Clark will make much more money from endorsements — same as she did in college. By remaining in college, she could make millions in endorsements and resume her pursuit of the only thing that has eluded her: a national championship.

She can pursue a championship in the WNBA, but does anyone care? Quick, name the 2023 WNBA champion. Or one from the last five years.

The Indiana Fever — ever heard of ‘em? — are expected to make Clark the first overall pick of the WNBA draft. They drew an average of 4,067 fans per game last season and finished last in the Eastern Conference with a record of 13-27.

Caitlin Clark will never have the following and visibility in the WNBA that she has in college basketball, where she is Taylor Swift in sneakers. The WNBA does not have the loyalty and appeal that the college game has through alumni and students.

Headline in the satirical Babylon Bee: “Caitlin Clark to Retire from Spotlight and Enter WNBA.”

The WNBA attracted an average of 6,600 fans per game in 2023. Clark and her Iowa teammates averaged 11,143 fans last season, selling out every home game. They totaled 238,620 fans during the regular season, not counting the 55,646 fans who watched an outdoor exhibition game in the school’s football stadium last fall — the biggest crowd in the history of women’s basketball.

The WNBA averaged 500,000 TV viewers during the 2023 regular season and averaged 728,000 viewers for the WNBA Finals; the NCAA women’s championship game drew more than 18.9 million viewers. NBA regular-season games averaged about 1.62 million viewers last year and the NBA Finals averaged 11.6 million.

Even after 27 years in business, the WNBA still loses more than $10 million annually. It simply hasn’t caught the country’s interest. Among its many challenges is the schedule — the WNBA season runs from mid-May to mid-September, starting during the NBA playoffs and finishing as the NFL and college football seasons get underway.

Women’s professional basketball has plenty of problems. The WNBA is hoping that Caitlin Clark can do for the league what Bird, Magic and Jordan did for the NBA more than 40 years ago.

Iowa's Caitlin Clark speaks during a press conference before practice for the NCAA Women's Final Four championship basketball game on Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Cleveland. | Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
Iowa's Caitlin Clark speaks during a press conference before practice for the NCAA Women's Final Four championship basketball game on Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Cleveland. | Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press