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Caitlin Clark: Women's sport has new superstar as basketball phenomenon goes global with epic college career

Caitlin Clark became the highest-scoring player in men’s and women’s NCAA college basketball history, drawing record audiences to Iowa Hawkeyes games; since drafted No 1 pick by the Indiana Fever in the WNBA, is this just the beginning for this new sporting phenomenon?

Credit - Getty/AP Photo

Caitlin Clark. The name should register with you, though you may not entirely know why…

Basketball doesn't dominate this side of the pond like it does in the US, let alone women's collegiate basketball. But Clark's name has transcended those boundaries in recent months due to her unrivalled talent on court and stratospheric rise stateside.

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After being selected by Indiana Fever as their number one pick in the WNBA draft, Caitlin Clark says her eyes light up at the idea of playing with the best players in the world.

Talent which has persuaded the Indiana Fever to use the No 1 pick of the WNBA Draft on her, that has Nike willing to part with $28m for an eight-year partnership, that saw a record 18.9m television audience watch her final college appearance for Iowa in the National Championship game, and that has seen average ticket prices of $60 to the Fever last year sky-rocket to approximately $300 in anticipation of her debut season.

And this could just be the start. The impact Clark can have on women's basketball and women's sport in general could be seismic.

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Caitlin Clark, the highest-scoring player in NCAA history, could not stop her Iowa Hawkeyes losing 87-75 in the National Championship game to the South Carolina Gamecocks

'Biggest icon since Tiger'; 'The Taylor Swift effect' - what the experts say

Bailey Turner, assistant director in strategic communications at Iowa Basketball: "She's the biggest sports icon the country has seen since Tiger Woods.

Tiger Woods smiles on 1st tee during the final round of the PNC Championship golf tournament Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Kevin Kolczynski)
Image: Tiger Woods transformed golf with his spell of dominance, winning 15 majors between 1997 and 2019

"Golf on TV was not doing well before he came on the scene and Caitlin has done the exact thing [with women's basketball]… nobody was really watching it until Tiger or Caitlin came along, then boom!

"She has the 'it' factor, meaning she turns heads, and its truly a magical thing when she has the basketball in her hand. She's playing a different game to everyone else."

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Amy Bass, professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College: "This is more than just your typical 'GOAT' player.

"I live in New York and if I walk into Times Square, Caitlin Clark is towering over me on behalf of Nike. She's on Saturday Night Live, pretty ably jousting with Michael Che, wearing a jacket that everyone googled - a $600 varsity jacket that everyone is now desperately looking for.

"The word 'fan' comes from 'fanatic' and we're seeing it in pockets right now with a girl-culture fandom - there's the Taylor Swift effect, for example.

"You have this one standalone figure [in Clark]… sort of like when [Lionel] Messi plays. There is Messi tourism right now in the United States, and we're witnessing another star-making moment."

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Inter Miami announced the signing of Lionel Messi in dramatic fashion!

Jeffrey Ohlmann, associate professor of business analytics at University of Iowa: "It's not just women tuning in to watch her. It's all age ranges and genders who are interested in this generational talent.

"She has this on-court charisma, she's polarising in some sense… if you're not cheering for her, you're cheering against her.

"In baseball, the New York Yankees, you're either a fan or you hate them. That's kind of the same with Caitlin Clark.

"She's obviously got tonnes of fans, she's super popular - and for good reason - but there's also the fact that certainly no-one feels indifferent to her."

Caitlin Clark: The stats

  • All-time leading scorer in men’s and women’s NCAA college basketball (3,951), surpassing LSU’s Pete Maravich (3,617)
  • Clark is the all-time leader in 30+ point performances (with 59) in men’s and women’s college basketball over the last 25 seasons
  • She has 20 career games with 30+ points and 10+ assists, with no-one in women’s college basketball in the past 25 seasons having more than two such games
  • Clark is the first Division-I college player to record 3,800+ points, 1,000+ assists, and 950+ rebounds in a career
  • This year, she became the first Division-I player to notch back-to-back 1,000-point seasons
  • Broke the NCAA record for most points in a single season with 1,234 in 2023-24
  • Clark's senior year was the greatest three-point shooting season in NCAA history, making 201 to surpass joint-record holder and four-time NBA champion Stephen Curry's mark of 162
  • Clark holds the record for the most three-pointers made in NCAA history, scoring 548 of them in her four years with Iowa
  • Only the sixth player to ever amass 1,000+ career assists in college

'Star power to fund a museum' - the Caitlin Clark effect

Clark's ascent to global phenomenon, up until a few months ago, had been a gradual one.

She led women's college basketball in scoring as a first-year student in 2020-21, giving nod to her precocious talents, but it was two years later, when the wider sporting landscape began to take note as she lead Iowa to the first of their back-to-back National Championship game appearances.

The average attendance of Iowa's home basketball games had jumped from 5,148 pre-Caitlin Clark in 2019 to 8,763 by her junior year. This past season, every Hawkeyes game was a 14,988 sell out - a jump in attendance of 190 per cent from 2019.

The Caitlin Clark effect was being felt at away games too, with crowds at Iowa road games previously tallying an average of 4,456 before jumping to 13,747 this past year.

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The Iowa Hawkeyes' Caitlin Clark made this superb four-point play against UCONN, taking the contact after putting up the three-point attempt.

"That massive increase in attendance, it really is astounding," said Ben Murrey, Iowa director of policy and research with the Common Sense Institute.

"By her senior year, the only thing that was limiting Caitlin's ability to draw in crowds was the capacity of the arena she was playing.

"She has had just an astonishing impact on the economy - we estimate between $14.4m and $52.3m in GDP growth to the state of Iowa.

"Anecdotally, the university recently opened a new Stanley Museum of Art. On the upper range of what we project her economic impact was, her impact could have paid to completely construct and open that museum! That's a pretty big deal.

"She's created jobs, economic activity in the state, and we're just so proud of her. We're excited for her going to Indiana, and we know she's going to do great things."

Opportunity knocks for WNBA and women's sport

Indiana is indeed Clark's next destination, with the 22-year-old bound for the WNBA - despite the lure of a $5m offer from hip-hop mogul Ice Cube to instead join his BIG3 league, which he co-founded.

When you compare that to Clark's starting WNBA salary of approximately $76,000, you can see why there might have been the temptation to take her considerable talents elsewhere.

Clark's initial four-year contract has also been held up against Victor Wembanyama's, the comparative No 1 overall pick in the NBA last year, who penned a four-year deal with the San Antonio Spurs worth a massive $55m.

San Antonio Spurs big man Victor Wembanyama drives against the Charlotte Hornets during the first half of the Frenchman's NBA Summer League debut in Las Vegas (AP Photo/John Locher)
Image: San Antonio Spurs picked Victor Wembanyama with the No 1 overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft

"I saw a stat that said she's making less than what Babe Ruth made in baseball in the 1930s," said Bass. "WNBA salaries are low, but they curate their salaries very carefully because they don't want to go under. They're playing the long game.

"We've had these moments of opportunity in women's sport before, lots of them, but the infrastructure of sport hasn't necessarily followed.

"The fans are screaming what they are valuing - in terms of their time, their fandom, their viewership. Now we need to see the value of women's sport represented.

"We shouldn't wait for results to invest in women's sport, we should invest in women's sport to get results."

As previously mentioned, Clark's modest WNBA salary will at least be significantly bolstered by commercial deals with the likes of Nike, Gatorade and Xfinity among those to recognise her immense marketability.

Michael Jordan celebrates a Chicago Bulls victory
Image: Michael Jordan won six NBA Championships with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s

The deal with Nike also includes the release of a signature shoe that conjured memories of the one a certain Michael Jordan signed (five years, $2.5m) in 1984 when fresh out of college. A year later, the Air Jordan 1 was released and had made the company more than $100m by the end of 1985.

As for his NBA career, we went on to do okay - six-time NBA champion and five-time league MVP.

"I hope that the WNBA can capitalise on this," Ohlmann said. "It all hinges on she has to play well.

"Nobody's doubting that she can do it but it's not necessarily a given. I wouldn't bet against her.

"She's a generational talent. I liken it to when I was grown up and you had Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The NBA was actually a fairly struggling league before they came in… but their dynamic captured a lot of people's attention."

Magic Johnson in action for the Los Angeles Lakers
Image: Magic Johnson was a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s

Bass too sees similarities in what Clark can do for the women's game to the impact that the likes of Johnson, Bird and latterly Jordan had on the men's.

"There are young female athletes who now have a much different trajectory because there's a different goal they get to have," Bass said.

"Keep the talent at home, cultivate the league and eventually pay them what they're worth - as soon as it's feasible to do that.

"It's quite a hopeful moment for the WNBA, women's basketball and women's sport writ large."

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