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Caitlin Clark, Catalyst For Change


Caitlin Clark, The Catalyst For Change

Last year, national television broadcast exactly one of the Indiana Fever’s 36 WNBA games.

This year, things will be a little different. There will be 40 regular season games and 36 of the Fever’s contests—that’s 90%—will be broadcast nationally.

What happened?

Two words: Caitlin Clark.

Clark may be the hottest name in all sports right now.

Although her Iowa Hawkeyes did not win the NCAA women’s basketball championship, Clark electrified the nation and the world with her play.

In each of the last three games she played during the tournament, a new record for viewership was set.

The championship game in which Iowa fell in defeat to South Carolina drew 18.7 million viewers—peaking at 24 million at one point during the broadcast. By contrast, the men’s championship battle drew an audience of 14.8 million, which means the women played for a crowd roughly 25% larger than the guys did.

Just as important, the women’s championship game was the most widely viewed basketball game in five years.

The Fever had the first pick in the WNBA draft.

They wisely used it to choose Clark.

Her arrival has already made an impact. The demand for tickets to Fever games—and the prices people must pay for them—have jumped in many places by 500%. Jerseys and other forms of fan apparel also have formed a skyrocketing market.

Even that does not capture the full import of Clark’s presence on the court—and in the world’s consciousness.

She appears to be one of those protean, transformational figures, one who will alter, likely forever, the way we view both sports and women.

Much attention has been focused on the relatively paltry sum—under $80,000—she will receive as a rookie in the WNBA. That’s about 1/200th of what the NBA’s top draft pick earned this year.

That disparity, though, is about to change.

Clark will be the catalyst for that change. Her massive celebrity and earning power will kick open doors, knock down walls, and shatter ceilings. Where she goes others will follow.

That she has become the face of women’s basketball already has prompted carping from within and around the sport.

One meme that pollinated much of social media offered pointed commentary about the irony of a white girl earning so much attention when she lost to a mostly Black team coached by a Black woman.

The criticism has validity but also is somewhat beside the point. A tide as large as the one Clark has generated will lift many, many boats, regardless of the skin color or ancestry of those who captain those boats.

That is the nature both of figures who loom as large as Clark does and of moments laden with as much possibility as this one is.

Clark takes pride in being a basketball player, but she is much more than that. She’s a jump-shooting argument for women to receive as much as men—and maybe even a little bit more.

The historic argument in sports for women receiving lower compensation than men was that the guys were the ones who put more butts in the seats and attracted more eyeballs to the screens.

But Clark demonstrates that this no longer is true.

Now—and perhaps for the foreseeable future—she has the largest constituency in sports.

Just as Taylor Swift has assumed a place in pop culture as large as that of Elvis Presley and the Beatles in earlier eras, Clark now stands shoulder to shoulder with Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, figures who transcended the world of sports.

The predictions that she will expand and redefine what’s possible for women athletes—and women, period—are shortsighted.

She’s already done that.

The only question that remains is just how fast and far the changes she brings in her wake will go.

There is irony in this, of course. The fact that Caitlin Clark has emerged to shake off the unjust constraints placed on women and girls on the court while much of the political culture works to place artificial limits on them is proof that human history has a cruel sense of humor.

But that’s the big picture.

The smaller picture is much more fun.

For the next few years, we Hoosiers will get to watch Clark swell the dreams of girls and women everywhere, one swish at a time.

FOOTNOTE:  John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College.