The Caitlin Clark Effect has made women’s basketball the hottest ticket

The Caitlin Clark Effect

The scene was described as “controlled chaos”.

Dozens of people lined up around the block and around the corner to get into Sports Bra in Portland, Oregon, which was the first bar in the world — according to owner Jenny Nugen — to show only women’s sports.

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The fact that it was the middle of a Monday didn’t dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm, nor did it stop them from having “three times” more drinks than usual.

They were there to watch an epic women’s college basketball tournament game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the LSU Tigers, headlined by superstars Kaitlynn Clark and Angel Reese.

From the sports bra crowd to the famous LeBron James and Travis Scott, it was watched by over 12 million viewers. It was the most watched college basketball game ever, whether men’s or women’s.

“It was electric,” Ms. Nugen said, recalling the atmosphere when the University of Iowa defeated Louisiana State University, a victory led by Clark, who scored 41 points.

She said, “I’ve been watching women’s basketball for decades. It seems like everyone else is just catching up… It’s a terrible time.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has been hosting a basketball tournament known as March Madness since 1939.

In just three weeks, 68 of the best college teams became a champion.

The annual event is a media frenzy with millions of fans watching the games around the clock.

For decades, this applied only to men’s tournaments. not anymore.

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Ticket prices for this year’s women’s championship are on average twice as high as the men’s, reaching $11,000 (£8,736).

Front Office sports reporter Amanda Kristovich said one reason for this “pivotal moment in women’s basketball” is generational talent like Iowa’s Kaitlin Clark.

Secondly, she said, the emphasis on gender equity in college sports has reached a new height.

In 2024, the NCAA signed a TV contract with ESPN that values the women’s tournament annually at $65 million, 10 times the previous rate. Less than five years ago, it wasn’t even possible to watch every game of the women’s NCAA Tournament on a national broadcast.

Big stage has given big platform to big stars. And Clarke – who is arguably the biggest name in the game at the moment – has been the main driver of the recent buzz.

The college senior has scored over 3,900 points in his career, more than any other college athlete, male or female, in NCAA history.

What is the Caitlin Clark Effect?

Kaitlin Clark is a 22-year-old headline-grabbing, trash-talking, fan-adoring Iowa guard who is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players in college history.

She wins the game. Lots of games. Breaks records. Lots of records. And fills the stadiums with crowds eager to see him.

Many are hoping to see his famous long-range three-point shots.

Standing dozens of feet from the basket, sometimes in the middle of the court, she effortlessly shoots the ball over her opponents’ heads. The distance often beats the average range of a collegiate female athlete.

Clark recently broke the record for most three-point shots made in a season, previously held by professional player Steph Curry.

His star power – he has over a million followers on Instagram – has attracted a large number of new fans to the sport. People travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to see him.

The phenomenon of her influence has been dubbed the Caitlin Clark Effect.

Like Taylor Swift, their presence increases not only ticket prices, but also hotel rates and nearby restaurant reservation lists.

“She’s a once-in-a-generation player. She’s incredible. She’s viral,” Ms. Kristovich said. “She’s the medium through which a lot of people have discovered women’s college basketball this year.”

However, Ms. Kristovich said, “Would Caitlin Clark have gotten the attention 20 years ago that she’s getting now? Probably not”.

He added, “And it’s not because she wasn’t that good. It’s because people weren’t paying attention.”

For decades, the women’s tournament “was treated as a second-class event”, according to Ms Kristovich.

One example was that the women’s tournament was not allowed to use the NCAA’s trademark March Madness logo until the 2022 season. And, until recently, it was also hard to find on TV, Ms. Kristovich said.

breaking barriers

“We have this moment in front of us that has been a snowball building for the last generation,” said Kate Fagan, a former University of Colorado basketball player and author of the book Hoop Muse.

There were three major turning points, separated by decades.

First, the NCAA was forced to provide equal athletic opportunities to women in the 1970s when the federal law known as Title IX went into effect. Then, in 1996, the creation of the Women’s National Basketball League gave young players a path to becoming professional athletes.

The third major catalyst came to TikTok more than 20 years later. In 2021, a female basketball athlete at the University of Oregon posted a video comparing an NCAA tournament training facility for women to one provided for men.

There were gross inequalities. The men’s facility featured rows of workout platforms, equipped with dumbbells, barbells and weights capable of going up to hundreds of pounds. There was a tower of dumbbells weighing 30 pounds (14 kg) and some yoga mats for the women’s convenience. The video went viral.

A follow-up investigation by an outside law firm found that the NCAA “prioritises men’s basketball, which contributes to gender inequality” and that it is “significantly undervaluing women’s basketball as an asset”.

The NCAA then made a complete change that included allowing the women’s tournament to use the March Madness branding. The new media contract with ESPN, which now airs all women’s March Madness games on multiple platforms, was another by-product.

“There were always great players. There were always great athletes,” said Pamela Grundy, co-author of Shattering the Glass, a novel based on women’s basketball. “But now a bigger group of people are watching them.

“And to be honest, it’s a lot better than people think.”

But, he said, “the game is driven not just by tickets, but by sponsors”.

Millions of dollars paid to college athletes

The combination of state laws and NCAA rule changes in 2021 opened up never-before-seen opportunities for college athletes to make money by selling the rights to their name, image and likeness (NIL).

Six-figure endorsement deals, signed by the players – some of them still teenagers – soon followed. Top brands like State Farm and Nike began partnering with top athletes like Kaitlynn Clark.

“There are some female athletes who are making millions of dollars every year through NIL,” said Blake Lawrence, founder and CEO of Opendorse.com, a platform for NIL contracts.

National endorsement deals also expose athletes to more people, airing them in commercials and games on TV across the US.

And women get the benefit of their social media presence, which is a “huge component” in most void deals, Mr. Lawrence said.

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Still, women’s college basketball players are hindered in many ways by the NCAA structure, Ms. Kristovich said.

In the tournament, the further men’s basketball teams advance through the rounds, the more money they are able to earn for their conferences. There are no women’s teams.

For the top four placing teams in each of the men’s and women’s tournaments this year, that equates to a difference of nearly $40 million.

“What’s incredibly impressive about the success of the women’s tournament is that it’s happening despite the odds,” Ms Kristovich said.

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