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More Than ‘Caitlin Clark Effect’ Driving Women’s Basketball Boom

This is not just a Caitlin Clark story.

That’s what ESPN VP of brand strategy and content insights Flora Kelly said, having studied the data around the Iowa star’s ascendency.

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Yes, Clark has become a dominant force on and off the court: selling out arenas, signing massive brand deals, and becoming the face of college basketball—men’s or women’s.

But she’s also doing so in tandem with a groundswell of interest across women’s basketball and women’s sports even more broadly. Increased TV time has contributed to the growth, and been a result of it. The same holds for structural changes in how fans watch sports today.

Disentangling those interrelated craze propellants is a fool’s errand, Kelly added. What came first, the exposure or the audience? remains an unanswerable question. Still, the more-than-Caitlin Clark story offers tantalizing lessons in what makes sports grow in 2024.

Clark is far and away the best known player in March Madness this year. But four out of the six most recognizable athletes playing in either tournament are women, according to a recent Seton Hall poll. Even taking Clark out of the picture, Similarweb data shows online search volume about high-profile female players jumped 54% from January to February (compared to a 10% jump for top male athletes).

Select TV executives saw this coming before Clark emerged on the scene—and pushed to set the stage for her breakout.

Carol Stiff spent more than 30 years at ESPN and for much of that time urged the industry to embrace women’s sports. “All I can say is it’s about time,” said Stiff, now the president of the Women’s Sports Network, a 24/7 destination dedicated to the topic.

Advertisers played a key role, seeing the value in those properties and demanding more supply in more appealing time slots. Google worked with ESPN to expand the WNBA’s primetime inventory and SportsCenter coverage. Ally pushed for the NWSL’s championship to be moved into the evening (where viewership jumped 71%). Traditionally advertisers flow to where fans are. This time, they moved to where the fans would be.

Backroom believers saw both the social and financial benefits of growing those platforms, and recently the proof points have piled up. Now those conversations are less contentious, the decision to back women’s sports considered less radical.

“For skeptics, the numbers needed to be undeniable,” said Howard Megdal, founder/editor of The IX women’s sports newsletter and The Next women’s basketball newsroom.

Last spring, the NCAA Tournament final drew 9.9 million viewers on ABC and ESPN. That number was undeniable.

New allowances for college athletes to sign deals directly with advertisers have let those brands further promote their ambassadors to bigger audiences.

“Now, it’s just smart business,” ESPN VP for programming and acquisitions Nick Dawson said of investing in women’s sports content. “To not do it is a bad business decision.”

Decades-long generational change contributed too, as Fox Corporation president for insights and analytics Mike Mulvihill pointed out. Title IX of the Civil Rights Act was signed into law nearly 52 years ago, meaning everyone in TV’s critical 18-49 demographic today grew up in a world that recognized the need for women to have equal access to elite athletics. Coaches have developed, playing styles have evolved, and the women’s college basketball landscape is now more competitive than ever.

Then there are the much more recent innovations to consider. A massive expansion of linear channels, in particular the creation of school- and conference-specific stations, brought more chances to put women’s games on air. Mulvihill said data from Fox-owned Big Ten Network helped the company decide to put Iowa games on Fox itself, where Clark set viewership records while chasing scoring ones. Similar momentum is currently building across volleyball, gymnastics and softball, Mulvihill added.

And of course, there’s the internet. Beyond those cable channels, streaming services have vastly expanded access to women’s sports. Social media, meanwhile, has introduced the games’ stars to entirely new swaths of soon-to-be followers.

Kelly particularly pointed to the growth of TikTok during the pandemic. In 2021, then-Oregon Duck women’s basketball player Sedona Prince’s complaint about the lack of gym equipment went viral on the app, earning more than 12 million views—and offering a glimpse of what was to come.

Clark, a relatable, expressive young woman with a penchant for unbelievable plays, is seemingly tailor-made for online success. “Every single advertiser wants to connect themselves to something viral that just blows up like [Clark has],” said Adam Schwartz, Horizon Media SVP, managing partner for sports video investment.

It’s not just sports being upended by these phenomena. Social spikes are selling out quotidian products, fomenting mobs at viral restaurants, and forcing tourism destinations to basically put up “Stay Out” signs. In fact, sports—with its lifelong fandoms and IRL roots—might be one of the last sectors to be upended by today’s sensation creation industry. What’s happened with women’s basketball, then, could just be the beginning.

“The ability of pop culture to drive audience—I’ve never seen that to the extent that I’ve seen it the last few years,” Kelly said. “We’re really now—post-pandemic and post-TikTok when sports are on all cylinders—starting to see the impact of social media creating hyper awareness of characters and events for sports.”

Given the newness of those trends driving women’s basketball’s growth, it’s unclear how the fandom will develop. Will neophytes stick around for five years, or will people move on to the next hot thing? Will they attach themselves to teams, or individuals, or other centers of community conversation? Will new properties like the early-season events several networks are now building accelerate the sport’s momentum?

Here’s what the experts studying the data, those working with industry insiders, and the lifers who spent decades fighting towards moments like this March (even well before they could ever imagine such a thing as a TikTok Caitlin Cam) all agree on.

Yes, Clark is one of a kind. But her emergence is also only the start of something bigger.

More March Madness stories:
Kentucky’s Dillingham in March Madness as Ex-OTE Mates Sue NCAA
First Four Team or Normal 16-Seed? NEC Commish Prefers the Former
Drake Tightropes Between Athletic Success, Academic Reform
-Disney Sales Team Cleans Up on March Madness Ad Market
NCAA’s Cash Cow Remains (for Now) Amid Wholesale Change
The Last Dance of ‘Amateur’ March Madness
March Madness 2024: 16% of Women’s Players From Outside U.S.

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