by Evan Bruner
Ever since the NCAA’s founding in the early 20th century, men’s athletics have been at the forefront of collegiate sports. Even with the implementation of Title IX and increasing pressure on media outlets to give more coverage to female athletes, women’s sports have continued to lag behind the men. The most viewed NCAA events are almost exclusively men’s completions, and the most recognizable athletes are also overwhelmingly male.
These are hardly revelations; it’s been a widely accepted principle among fans and athletes that men’s athletics are more profitable. But like all beliefs and values, our perceptions are subject to change, and for every norm we live by, there’s someone daring to challenge it. There are over 500,000 student-athletes that compete under the NCAA’s banner, but none are as valuable to their sport as Caitlin Clark.
For those who have been keeping tabs on Clark since her high school days, her rise to stardom felt inevitable. A five-star recruit out of Dowling Catholic in Des Moines, Iowa, Clark was a program-defining get for coach Lisa Bluder and Iowa Hawkeyes. Whereas most prospects of Clark’s caliber commit to a blue blood like Connecticut or South Carolina, Clark chose to stay close to home.
From day one in Iowa City, it was clear even to the average fan that Clark had the makings of a superstar. She had the jump shot, the playmaking, and a feel for the game of someone ten years older. Clark dazzled as a freshman, averaging 26.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 7 assists. Although she was bested by fellow freshman and close friend Paige Bueckers for National Player of the Year, it was evident that her time was coming.
In the two years since, Clark has evolved into a superstar, a phenom, and every one of her games has become a can’t-miss sports spectacle. From logo threes to buzzer-beaters against ranked teams, Clark’s game is as exciting as it gets. And on the biggest stage, the NCAA tournament, she’s been nothing short of spectacular. In her four tournament games, Clark has averaged 30 points and 11 assists a game on remarkable efficiency. Her most impressive performance came in the Elite Eight, where she dropped a 41-point triple-double. Previously, no men’s or women’s player had recorded a 30-point triple-double in the NCAA tournament. Clark did it with 41.
It’s not just Clark’s skill or basketball prowess that makes her so special. Her game is aesthetically pleasing, consisting of smooth handles, deep threes, and flashy passes. It’s not just good basketball; it’s Hollywood, it’s box office, whatever you want to call it, it’s non-stop entertainment, and this sentiment has become increasingly obvious. Throughout the season, Clark and Iowa’s popularity rivaled that of many men’s programs, setting a new Big Ten attendance record for women’s basketball. Her star status followed her on the road, as Big 10 road venues saw, on average, 4,000 more fans than normal when Clark and the Hawkeyes came to town.
Clark’s historic triple-double on Sunday night didn’t go unnoticed, as 2.5 million fans tuned in to see the Hawkeyes advance to their first Final Four in 30 years. As if this figure wasn’t already impressive enough, it tops any men’s college basketball or NBA game shown on ESPN this season.
As nuanced and multi-faceted as Clark’s game is, her impact goes much deeper than individual skills or traits. She’s single-handedly changing the perception of women’s athletics. While there are varying opinions on the matter, it’s generally believed that the men’s game is declining. The combination of one-and-dones and the growing number of players opting to play overseas or in the G-league has made it difficult for the NCAA to build true stars.
This is what makes Caitlin Clark so valuable to college sports. She’s a superstar, the best in the game, and she’ll be back next year. She’s spent the last three years becoming a folk hero in basketball circles, and this mythology isn’t centered around where she’ll be drafted in the WNBA or where she’ll be ranked all-time when her career is over. Instead, it’s about what she’s doing in the present; the records she’s shattering and the historic run she’s on. Clark is a generation-defining talent, a statistical anomaly that’s reaching unprecedented heights in terms of both production and popularity.
Above all, Clark’s meteoric rise may serve as a harbinger for future generations. The more people that watch Caitlin Clark, the more they also watch other college basketball players, such as Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith and Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes. In essence, Clark can function as a gateway to women’s hoops. She’s bringing new eyes to the game, and more exposure leads to more consumers.
In the NIL era of college athletics, the term value has undergone a whole new meaning. Players making six or even seven figures a year off brand deals have become the new norm. But you can’t place a monetary value on Clark’s influence. She’s changing the game and its future, and that’s priceless.