Young fans from New York and New Jersey headed to Brooklyn for the 2024 WNBA Draft to witness college superstar and No. 1 overall pick Caitlin Clark, who will play for the Indiana Fever. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports.  Credit: Howard Simmons; Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke; Getty Images/ Sarah Stier

Wave goodbye to your mother’s WNBA.

Wave goodbye to women’s team sports as you knew it.

Wave goodbye to half-empty arenas, five-digit rookie salaries and teams flying commercial airlines in the playoffs being the norm.

Wave goodbye to not being able to watch them in prime time.

History was made Monday night when Caitlin Clark, wearing a cream-colored Prada suit, stepped onto the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music after officially being made the No. 1 pick in the WNBA.

It was one small step for the woman from Iowa and one giant step for women’s sports.

“We are witnessing a transformational moment in sport that we may not experience for generations,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said an hour before the Indiana Fever selected Clark with the No. 1 pick.

The league has struggled for years to make household names out of its players. With Clark, they have a household name delivered straight to them.

As she chased and then broke Pete Maravich’s scoring record this past season, Clark converted skeptics into hardcore women’s basketball fans. Fans — women, men and lots and lots of young girls — packed arenas on the road and at Iowa, cheering her with the kind of fervor usually reserved for Taylor Swift.

Just eight days before the WNBA Draft, 18.9 million viewers tuned in to the NCAA women’s championship game between Iowa and South Carolina. Iowa may have lost that game, but Clark won even more fans. She enters the WNBA with more than 306,000 followers on X, which is more than double the 142,000 followers that two-time MVP Breanna Stewart has.

A throng of fans began lining up outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music two hours before the draft, almost all of them hoping to see history unfold. Clark has had quite a weekend in New York, including becoming the first female athlete to play a team sport to appear on Saturday Night Live. The only other female athlete to recently make an appearance on the show is Serena Williams.

Her fans will translate into big-time dollars for the league and its players. Engelbert said this past week that Clark and the next generation of women’s basketball players will be the economic engines that ensure the league’s financial footing for the next three decades. In an interview with CNBC, Engelbert said she is looking to see the league’s existing media deals double in value, from $50 million to $100 million, when they are renegotiated in 2025.

Is Clark really head and shoulders beyond any other women’s basketball player to be drafted? That remains to be seen. But she definitely is the right player at the right time.

Clark is from the first class of women athletes to be able to benefit from NIL deals. That means she has been able to market herself heavily and make money off endorsements before joining a professional league.

According to NIL database On3, Clark already has made $3.1 million in endorsements. The only athletes to earn more are LeBron James’ son Bronny, Deion Sanders’ son Shedeur and LSU gymnast and social media influencer Livvy Dunne.

Among the companies Clark has deals with are Nike, Gatorade, State Farm, Buick and Xfinity. These were all signed while she was playing college ball, which went a long way toward helping to build her fan base. She will carry those all forward to the WNBA, bringing possibly millions of new fans with her.

Contrast that with the attention paid to Kelsey Plum, who set the previous NCAA scoring record during the 2016-17 season while playing for the University of Washington. Plum won the Wooden Award and ended up being the No. 1 draft pick, but she wasn’t able to sign an endorsement deal until she became a pro.

Now the floodgates have opened. You can bet that Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers will be the next household name to come in with endorsements and big-time hoopla.

It was no big surprise when the commissioner announced that the Fever were taking Clark. Still, she couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all.

“I dreamed of this moment since I was in second grade, and it’s taken a lot of hard work,” said Clark, 22. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but most of all, I’m just trying to soak it all in.”

So is the WNBA, which after almost three decades as a professional league seems poised to make the giant leap into a major professional sport.

Said Engelbert: “We are ready for this moment.”


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