Iowa guard Caitlin Clark celebrates during Senior Day ceremonies following...

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark celebrates during Senior Day ceremonies following a victory over Ohio State in an NCAA basketball game on March 3 in Iowa City, Iowa. Credit: AP/Cliff Jette

Is Caitlin Clark the G.O.A.T.?

Sports fans and analysts alike have been debating this all season as the Iowa guard broke just about every possible NCAA scoring record. Some believe her lack of a national championship keeps her out of the conversation. Others note that it isn’t her fault that Iowa couldn’t recruit better players to put around her.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter. Because what Clark has done this season transcends setting records and winning titles. She’s converted skeptics into hardcore women’s basketball fans, the kind that are willing to buy her jersey, tune into every one of her games and ultimately pay money to see her and, by extension, other women play basketball.

I don’t know yet if she is the greatest player of all time. But she certainly is the most important.

That’s because women’s professional basketball is poised to take a giant leap forward in popularity Monday night in Brooklyn when the Indiana Fever officially select Clark with the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft.

Clark, who sold out arenas all over the country this season as she chased the NCAA scoring record, has built a following never seen before in women’s basketball, culminating in 18.9 million viewers tuning into the NCAA women’s championship game. That’s four million more than the number of people who watched the men’s championship game.

“There’s no comparison I can find on the women’s side,” ESPN analyst and WNBA pioneer Rebecca Lobo said on a conference call last week. “And I’ve been in it since the very beginning. We haven’t seen a player drive ticket sales like this. We haven’t seen a player drive ratings like this. We’ve had great players come into the league. What’s Brittney Griner going to look like? What’s Diana Taurasi going to look like? But never anything close to this.”

Will the “Caitlin Clark Effect” translate to the WNBA? Early indications are that it already has as the league prepares for a cultural shift that will raise the popularity of its sport in the same way that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson raised the popularity of the NBA in the 1980s after they captivated the nation in the 1979 NCAA Tournament.

WNBA commissioner Cathy 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.

Even though Clark hasn’t been officially drafted by the Fever yet, ticket sales have skyrocketed. StubHub reports that sales for Fever tickets on its site are 13 times what they were at this time last year.

The Fever, who had one game on national television last season, will be the most televised team in the WNBA next season, the league announced last week. Indiana is scheduled to have 36 of its 40 contests on national television. By contrast, the defending champion Las Vegas Aces will have 35 and the runner-up Liberty will have 31.

It’s not just the Fever who will cash in on Clark’s popularity. The Aces recently announced plans to move their July 2 home game against Indiana from their 12,000-seat Michelob Ultra Arena to the 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena.

Clark also is drawing significant gambling interest, which helps drive sports viewership. DraftKings, FanDuel and BetMGM have reported that the South Carolina-Iowa championship game was the most-bet-on women’s sporting event ever. FanDuel is offering nine different categories in which bettors can wager on Clark in the WNBA. Among them are whether she will score 50-plus points in a game and whether she will make 10 three-pointers in a game.

Clark is not the first great player to come out of college. She very well could end up being the G.O.A.T. but, at least for a few more years, that can be up for debate. There’s no denying, however, that she is the right player at the right time.

American sports fans finally seem ready to embrace women’s basketball. Tuning in to watch Clark in the NCAA Tournament not only was fun but a feel-good experience for many first-time fans who feel as if they have gotten in on the ground floor of something that’s about to explode in popularity (it’s not the ground floor, but that’s a subject for another day).

What Clark has done has been far from easy, as noted by Dawn Staley, whose South Carolina team beat Clark in the national title game. Staley thanked Clark for “lifting up our sport” and  predicted a very bright future.

"She carried a heavy load for our sport and it is not going to stop here on a collegiate tour,” Staley said. “When she's the No.1 pick in the WNBA Draft, she's going to lift up that league as well."

The WNBA likely will never be the same.


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