March Madness 2024: JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo Lead Next Wave

USC star JuJu Watkins is already well-known in the women’s hoops community.

The freshman phenom is scoring more points per game (27.0) than anyone nationally not named Caitlin Clark, and she just led the Trojans to the program’s first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed since 1986.

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But the spotlight around the 18-year-old guard will grow even bigger next year when USC officially joins the Big Ten Conference in August. After playing most of her games on the soon-to-be-defunct Pac-12 Network, which carries limited national reach, Watkins and the Women of Troy will transition to a more robust Big Ten media package—including distribution deals with Fox, CBS and NBC’s Peacock.

As Iowa’s Clark gets ready to turn pro, she’ll take the all-time NCAA Division I scoring record with her. But Watkins has the potential to capture Clark-level national stardom with three years to spare—Fox play-by-play analyst Gus Johnson even made the bold prediction that Watkins will go on to break Clark’s record.

“Everybody in the media world is looking for who’s next in women’s basketball,” former Fox Sports Network president Bob Thompson said in an interview. “Caitlin and Angel Reese elevated that side from a viewership standpoint. So, you have start to look at the potential baton bearers. … [JuJu] is going to get a lot more exposure moving forward. Pretty much every one of her games is going to be distributed on a national basis one way or another.”

Watkins’ ascension comes as older standouts like Clark and Stanford forward Cameron Brink are headed to the WNBA. UConn star Paige Bueckers will stay for at least one more season while LSU’s Reese hasn’t announced whether she will enter the draft.

Watkins isn’t the only freshman poised to capitalize on the sport’s spike in popularity and TV viewership. Notre Dame guard Hannah Hidalgo has dominated the ACC, averaging 23 points per game, behind only Clark and Watkins. The Fighting Irish star broke the school’s all-time freshman scoring record earlier this month and is cashing in on NIL deals, recently partnering with local hotel Aloft South Bend.

Watkins, who has almost 448,000 followers on Instagram, is boosting her NIL profile with sponsorship deals from Mercedes Benz, Celsius, Nike, Taco Bell and others. The added TV exposure starting next season coupled with the growing momentum for women’s college basketball sets the table well for ESPN’s Player of the Year runner-up.

“[The Big Ten] is in good hands with JuJu going there,” said Spencer Harris, who runs USC NIL collective House of Victory. “She’s just a freshman and is already on this massive stage as a household name in women’s basketball. It’s an exciting time for her, for us, USC, and everyone [else] to see where it goes in the next couple years.”

In the meantime, Hidalgo and Watkins are leading their high-seeded teams Saturday in the opening round of the women’s NCAA Tournament—an event long been considered undervalued. The NCAA and ESPN inked an eight-year, $920 million deal earlier this year that features the network having exclusive rights for 40 college championships, including the women’s hoops tourney. While the event didn’t break out of the bundle like some had hoped, it was valued at $65 million per year, an uptick that speaks to the sport’s growing presence. Last year, the women’s national championship game was broadcast on ABC for the first time since 1996, drawing a record 9.9 million viewers, and the network will again air this year’s title bout on April 7.

“It’s the perfect time for women’s sports, in my opinion, even better than 1996,” Carol Stiff, president of the Women’s Sports Network and former ESPN vice president of women sports programming, said in an interview. “The time is right to finally invest in women’s sports, and that’s what has been missing. We had 1,600 hours of women’s sports at ESPN when I left, but we weren’t selling it. Now an advertiser can come in and scoop up a lot of great emotional and passionate moments in sport. … It just seems like the wave is finally here.”

Watkins, who has the LA market on her side, and Hildago are not the only ones poised to ride the wave. LSU’s Mikaylah Williams, UConn’s KK Arnold, Arkansas’ Taliah Scott (who recently entered the transfer portal) and South Carolina’s MiLaysia Fulwiley (who recently signed an NIL deal with Curry Brand) are other standout freshmen who may soon be faces of the sport.

“I’ve never felt this excited about the next three years of college basketball,” ESPN analyst and former University of Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said in an interview. “This [freshmen class] has stood out to me all season for what they’ve been able to do and how they’ve been able to play with confidence. So many of them have such big roles on their teams. … With the combination of NIL deals and brands buying into players who have a few more years left in college, we’re going to see more of them everywhere which is really cool.”

While still getting acclimated to college life, both Watkins and Hildago are already on the WNBA’s radar as well. The day after Clark said she would enter the league’s draft, commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke about the “generational players” that will enter the league in the next two years and how the momentum won’t stop there.

“And then—think about it—behind them is a JuJu Watkins and a Hannah Hidalgo, freshmen who are killing it on their respective college teams,” Engelbert said in an interview. “And one big difference now is they’re coming into the WNBA with huge followership because of social media, because of NIL and because of the quality of the game at the college level.”

For more Sportico coverage of the tournament, click on our March Madness 2024 page.

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