UND, Greater Grand Forks feeling impact of women's basketball growth

Apr. 12—GRAND FORKS — Former UND guard Kacie Borowicz, her sisters Kiley and Katie and their mom Tracy would sit and watch women's basketball whenever a game was nationally broadcast.

It didn't happen often, and if they could find a game, it often involved either Notre Dame or the University of Connecticut.

"You could never watch just a random women's basketball game on ESPN," she said. "But now, you can just turn on ESPN and there's 15 women's games on there. That's really exciting to see because it used to be such a crazy thing for women's games to be broadcasted like that."

The growing support of women's basketball has shifted it into the mainstream. Social media grasped onto a handful of star players, like Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, and made them household names.

The popularity of the sport translated in viewership numbers of the 2024 NCAA women's basketball tournament: The championship game between Iowa and South Carolina drew an

average of 18.7 million viewers

and peaked at 24 million, nearly double the amount who viewed the 2023 game between Iowa and LSU, which shattered previous viewership numbers.

In 2022, the title game between South Carolina and UConn drew an average of 4.85 million viewers.

And, for the first time, more people tuned in for the 2024 NCAA women's basketball championship game than the men's title game. The men's matchup between Purdue and UConn

drew an average of 14.8 million viewers,

continuing a five-year dip in viewership of the men's championship.

"Even just to see over 10 years what's happened ... There was almost zero interest in women's sports, or even women's basketball," East Grand Forks girls basketball coach Casi Zimny said. "Now seeing it be where it's at, having basically 24 million people tuned into a game, that's crazy."

The women's championship — an 87-75 South Carolina win over Iowa — was the most-watched basketball game since 2019, drawing more viewership than every NBA game in the last five years.

The Caitlin Clark Effect, as it came to be known, impacted viewership. Ball State University and Game Day

tracked media coverage of Clark during the tournament,

from March 20 to April 9. They found that more than 162,000 stories featured her and led to 177 billion media impressions.

Social media drove popularity of the women's tournament, too, with clips from the game and numerous fan videos going viral. Platforms promoting only women's sports have popped up in recent years and driven support of women's games, like Togethxr, a media company co-founded by former UConn and Seattle Storm star Sue Bird.

"I could go on any social media after a game, and there would be videos or posts about it," said Lauren Reardon, who plays basketball at Grand Forks Central. "In years past, there hasn't been anything like that. I feel like somebody would watch one game and then they'd make a post about it. Then people would want to watch the next game, and then it got to be more posts and more people talking about it."

Discussions about women's basketball happened off social media, too. Reardon said teachers had students fill out brackets for both the men's and women's tournaments and were tuned into the women's games.

"I'd come to school the next day and everybody would be talking about a game and asking, 'Did you see this game? Did you see what this player did?'" she said.

"I would go out to my track practice and my coaches would be like, 'Did you see the game?'" said Red River star and UND commit Jocelyn Schiller. "Now they're watching it. I felt like so many more people were watching, which was really cool."

More people are watching girls basketball locally, too. Schiller said Red River "definitely had more people come" to games this season.

She's hoping that translates to UND, a program that's always had local support but now averages lower attendance per game than the men's team.

"It's a big deal for even our women," UND coach Mallory Bernhard said. "We weren't playing in it by any means, but it still provides a ton of attention to the sport we play, so I think it adds a bunch of respect to it, too."

The WNBA was formed when Bernhard was growing up, giving her a glimpse of women's professional athletics. Still, it's taken years for women's basketball to reach a level near men's basketball and for women's players to become household names.

"There's an actual interest in it," she said. "I have a 4-year-old son, and he's going around our house and says, 'I'm No. 22 like Caitlin Clark.' My son is referencing a women's basketball player. That's not happening 5, 10 years ago. I think that's happening in more households than just my own, and that's pretty awesome."