LSU forward Angel Reese (10) drives past Missouri forward Hayley...

LSU forward Angel Reese (10) drives past Missouri forward Hayley Frank (43) during an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024, in Baton Rouge, La. As March Madness is set to tip off, three of the most recognizable names in college basketball are in the women’s tournament: Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Paige Bueckers. Credit: AP/Hilary Scheinuk

As March Madness is set to tip off, three of the most recognizable names in college basketball are in the women’s tournament: Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Paige Bueckers.

Clark drew record crowds and ratings all season long. Reese has LSU in contention for a second straight national championship. Bueckers is finally healthy and doing things on the court for UConn reminiscent of her freshman season when she was the AP Player of the Year.

Throw in a few stellar freshmen like JuJu Watkins and Hannah Hidalgo and the game is reaching heights it's never seen.

“One thousand percent we’ve seen a shift in just the perception of women’s college basketball in general,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “It doesn’t have to be at the detriment of men’s college basketball. The increased coverage and star power these players have; they are legitimate, popcorn-worthy type of players.”

For countless seasons, the buzz around the NCAA tournaments have often been on the men's game. The one-and-done stars, the juggernaut blueblood programs, the buzzer beaters and athleticism all getting more attention. The women's game has pretty much all of that too, and the ratings and attendance this season suggest casual fans are fully engaged with a game that boasts star power and an increasingly high level of play.

It helps that the women's players stick around for three, four or even five years without the chance to leave early for the pros so fans get to know them and watch them grow. Three years ago, Clark said she thought women’s players should be allowed to turn pro after their freshman year, like the men can.

Instead, she stuck around and had a record-setting year that grabbed the nation's attention.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, center, addresses questions from the media...

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, center, addresses questions from the media during an NCAA college basketball "Selection Sunday" watch party Sunday, March 17, 2024, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. Credit: AP/Geoff Stellfox

“It’s really, really evident that there’s stars out there in this game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Whereas before I think they were there, but nobody wanted to acknowledge it and appreciate it as much. ... They’re just really good. Everybody is going around telling everybody how good they are. They’re all visible.”

ESPN said it just saw the most watched women’s college basketball regular season in more than 15 years, with viewership up 37% on its platforms from last season. That doesn’t really even include the Clark effect as Iowa’s star wasn’t on the network much this season. Iowa's ratings on Fox Sports were the highest in a generation.

ESPN plans to show all of Iowa’s games, including a few on ABC, as far as the No. 1 seed advances in the tourney.

“It’s not just UConn and Tennessee on TV," Auriemma said. "Those kids are on TV a lot. They’re in the limelight a lot. They know how to handle it because they’re used to it now."

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) is fouled by Penn State...

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) is fouled by Penn State guard Ashley Owusu (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. As March Madness is set to tip off, three of the most recognizable names in college basketball are in the women’s tournament: Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Paige Bueckers. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

Clark, who broke the NCAA all-time scoring record this season, has helped six different networks reach all-time viewership marks for women’s basketball over the past year, starting with last season’s NCAA championship game that drew nearly 10 million viewers.

“I kind of get to be in the spotlight and I get to change people’s viewpoint of how they see women’s basketball,” Clark said before the season. “The amount of people that have come up to me and said, ‘I’ve never watched women’s basketball before before you and your team ... .’ Some people could take that as a negative. But to me that’s a positive. We’re finally getting them to turn on the TV and watch it, but not only watch it once. They’re coming back for more.”

People aren't just watching, they are also coming to games too. All five of the power conferences had huge crowds for their tournaments. The SEC and Big Ten had their best attendance ever. The Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 weren’t far behind.

“The big names continue to put up big numbers and people are watching and the media is paying attention,” Bueckers said. “The tournament will be great and will continue the rise of women’s basketball.”

Fans who pack the arenas are also sticking around afterward, hoping to get a coveted autograph. The importance of the moment isn’t lost on the game’s stars. Clark, Reese, Bueckers, Watkins and many others spend time postgame signing and taking pictures with not only young girls, but boys, too.

“There were 400 people in the stands before she got here and now we’re selling out,” Gottlieb said of Watkins. “We’ve got NBA players who want to see her, WNBA players, musicians and actors too. Regular fans also, it’s a diversified crowd. Little boys and girls who ask me if I know JuJu. Could they meet Juju? Grown men you run into in downtown LA.”

Even when Clark leaves for the WNBA after the NCAA Tournament, the future of women's basketball is still strong with Bueckers, Watkins, Hidalgo and many other up-and-coming players.

”It’s going to get even better. So many kids coming out of high school are just unbelievably good," Auriemma said.

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