To get an idea of just how intoxicating Caitlin Clark’s game is, all you had to do Sunday — if you weren’t near a TV to watch her pile up 41 points, hand out 12 assists and grab 10 rebounds — was scroll Twitter.
Dick Vitale, the ESPN commentator who’s watched a few superstars in his 40-plus years calling games, wrote, “OMG I can’t believe what I am watching in this 3S lady / SUPER – Sensational – Scintillating = CAITLIN CLARK! Way better than I thought. Heard so much about her from my buddy-partner Dave O’Brien & wow he was on the money/ she is as good as it gets.”
T.J. Hockenson, the Minnesota Vikings tight end (and Iowa alum) is a fan, too. “Caitlin Clark is a walking bucket,” he tweeted. “Absolutely incredible.”
In the second half, as her Hawkeyes pulled away and everyone in Climate Pledge Arena went on triple-double watch, Clark became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter.
Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. was in awe, and brief: “Caitlin Clark is ridiculous.”
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In sum: she’s the superstar women’s basketball needs, right when the game needs it.
On Saturday, women’s basketball bid an early goodbye to UConn, the program that had made an NCAA-record 14 consecutive Final Fours but will be watching from home this April. On Sunday, it said hello to Clark, the most electrifying player in college basketball, men’s or women’s. Her passes in transition causes gasps, her tendency to pull up from the logo makes opponents shake their heads.
She’s a transcendent talent, a player of the year candidate who elevates everyone around her and loves the big stage. Sunday when Iowa built as much as a 22-point lead she played to the crowd, motioning to fans to cheer louder, cupping her ear to see if they complied. Asked afterward what it’s like to have an entire arena wrapped around your finger, Clark leaned into the mic and admitted sheepishly, “I feel kinda powerful.”
Indeed, she is powerful. Even more so than she knows — because she’s coming along at the perfect time.
Women’s NCAA Tournament recap:Caitlin Clark lifts Iowa to Final Four after LSU advances
New TV contract will change women’s game
Women’s basketball is exploding in popularity across the country, as parity rises across college hoops and the WNBA forms super teams through free agency.
And people are paying attention.
Last year’s title game between South Carolina and UConn drew 4.85 million viewers, the most watched title game since 2004. It was the most watched cable program of the day, and a 30% increase in viewers compared to 2019. On Super Bowl Sunday this year, No. 1 South Carolina vs. then-No. 3 LSU drew 1.5 million viewers, the biggest audience for regular-season women’s basketball since 2010. The 2022 WNBA season saw a 16% increase in viewership.
Next summer, ESPN will negotiate a new TV contract with the NCAA, and the thinking is that they’ll sell women’s basketball by itself (currently the women’s championship is sold with every other college sport championship besides football and men’s basketball). It’s a moneymaker in waiting.
Now it’s one with a new superstar.
Clark has the ability to draw fans every time she steps on the floor. She thrives in the open floor, zipping passes through traffic and pulling up from 30-feet and beyond to bury jumpers. And while she plays with plenty of swagger, it’s the joy in her game that might be unmatched.
“That’s when I play my best basketball, when I’m having the most fun of anyone on the court,” Clark said. “I play this game because I love it and because it brings joy to other people, I don’t play to hoist a trophy.”
Then, just so everyone knows she doesn’t take herself too seriously: “I’m a fun person off the court, too, maybe a little too goofy.”
Playing to crowd while piling up points
The natural comparison to Clark is Diana Taurasi, arguably the greatest women’s player of all time.
Taurasi is spectacular in talent, too, but it’s her larger-than-life personality that’s captivated people since her freshman year at UConn (and still does).
Similarly, Clark separates herself with her combination of talent and personality. While there are other players who are just as good, maybe better, across women’s basketball, they don’t capture the crowd’s affection quite the same way.
Even her coaches sometimes find themselves caught up in a highlight-reel moment.
Early in the second quarter, after Clark buried a corner 3 to give Iowa a 28-21 lead, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder shook her head slightly, almost in disbelief, crossed her arms and smiled big. She was enjoying the show as much as anyone.
“She really is spectacular, I don’t know how else to say it,” Bluder said, adding that Clark can and will help sell women’s basketball when it’s time to negotiate.
“We’ve been shortchanging ourselves, certainly you have a product like this” — Bluder motioned to the stat sheet, which detailed Clark’s brilliance — “helps make it seem like yeah, (selling women’s basketball separately) is a no-brainer.”
That means Caitlin Clark isn’t just the game’s flashiest, most breathtaking player. She’s the one about to lead it into a new era.
Contributing: Steve Berkowitz, USA TODAY Sports
Follow sports enterprise reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell.