Image credit: John Mac

The Caitlin Clark Effect

In 2023, 512,000 people tuned in to watch the 2023 Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Draft. In 2024, that number was 2.45 million. The most-watched WNBA event in over two decades – surpassing a previous high from 2000 – saw college basketball sensation Caitlin Clark picked first, and her journey represents a glimmering future for women’s basketball.

A basketball prodigy in her youth and high school championships, Clark’s college career began at the University of Iowa, where she quickly established herself a force to be reckoned with. Her skill on the court led the Iowa Hawkeyes to multiple “Big Ten” college championships in her four years. Besides being named an “All-American” first-teamer in each of her seasons with Iowa, she was also named the National Player of the Year in her final two by numerous publications. But It was her scoring record that set her apart from her peers; in her sophomore (2nd) year, she led the NCAA Division I in both points and assists, the first woman ever to do so, as well as repeating this feat the following season. As a senior earlier this year, she became the Division I single-season leader in points, broke the all-time conference record for assists, and, most prominently, became the division’s leading scorer – of all time, shattering both the women’s record, previously held by Kelsey Plum, as well as LSU legend Pete Maravich’s men’s record.

The term “generational talent” is thrown about in various sports, and often used quite loosely. In Clark’s case, though, it seems like there is little else to describe her achievements so far. She is, of course, not the first impressive women’s basketball player, but her achievements have been nothing short of transformative: the manner in which she hits shots, threads passes and finishes layups in transition are spectacular. Her play-style is often compared to NBA legend Stephen Curry, owing to a shared, seemingly limitless range in their techniques, as well as their freedom on the basketball court. Far from being ball hogs due to their remarkable shooting, they both possess a selfless passing ability, pushing the boundaries of what constitutes as a “great” in the modern-day game.

Yet Clark’s achievements have gone beyond her mere ability; her reputation as one of the greatest women’s college basketball players has led to an unprecedented popularisation of the sport. Richard Clark of The Athletic described how her long-range shooting and confident playing style attracted a wide audience to the 2023 NCAA tournament. The national championship game of that season became the most-viewed women’s college basketball game in history, with 9.9 million – only slightly lower than the men’s final, and over half the regular viewership of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” NFL coverage, among the highest in U.S. sports broadcasting. Her team additionally sold out all its home games for the first time in program history, and regular games in her final season became the most-viewed women’s basketball games of all time on six different TV broadcasting networks. “Buying season tickets to go to one game?” wrote King Jemison of Yahoo Sports. “That’s the Caitlin Clark Effect”.

In general, the depressing reality of women’s sports is that it is haunted by a pervasive lack of being taken seriously. This issue stems from deeply ingrained misogyny and stereotypes about women’s athletic ability, with many rejecting the possibility of women being equal athletes.These attitudes are ever-changing, however, with a trend that has not just been seen in basketball, but also in plenty of other sports. For instance, last year’s Women’s World Cup was its most-attended ever, with England’s 3-1 quarter-final win over the Matildas becoming Australia’s most-watched television broadcast in its history.

Clark’s effect on college basketball has been “crazy,” as per the Doug Feinberg of the Associated Press, who wrote that “there has never been anything like it in women’s basketball when an individual player has drawn so much interest from fans wanting to see her play.” And, with Clark now entering her professional career in the WNBA, this does not seem like a frenzy that is about to die down any time soon, with a player of her talent ushering in a new era for women’s sport.

A caveat for Clark’s impact, despite the surging of the spot, is the financial shortcomings that have been faced by the WNBA, leaving its players far from being compensated at the same level of their male counterparts. This is a process that could take several years, requiring renegotiating money flows and bargaining agreements across the league between players, broadcast partners, and other business interests. Its revenue is quickly growing, but pales in comparison to the NBA. Rookies, including Clark, will earn a base salary of $76,000 this season (excluding sponsorship deals), a far lower rate than NBA’s current league minimum of $1 million; given her level of talent and impact on the game, that remains a frighteningly low number.

Clark’s journey from a college phenomenon to a WNBA frontrunner has made her more than just a personal success story, it has made her a beacon for the shining future of the game. Her ability to captivate millions, fill stadiums and shatter viewing records represent a societal shift towards appreciating and valuing female athletes on their own merits, rather than simply in comparison to men. With her career just beginning, the “Caitlin Clark Effect” suggests her legacy is already intact – and will lead to further breakthroughs in visibility, investment and respect, not just for women’s basketball, but for women’s sport.

Image Description: Caitlin Clark during the 2023 Iowa v. Ohio Championship