DALLAS — Half the people who watched the national championship game were furious with the officials, while the other half was incensed an athlete had the audacity to talk trash.
If you want the surest sign yet that women’s basketball has arrived, there you go.
For too long, women’s basketball – all of women’s sports, really – has struggled for air in the national conversation. There are all kinds of reasons why, and that’s a debate for another day. But for several decades, the score of LSU’s 102-85 win over Iowa on Saturday would have been noted, maybe the fact it was the Tigers’ first national title, and that would have been about it.
The conversation would have shifted quickly to another Tiger, and his appearance at Augusta National. Or maybe to an early season baseball game. For sure LSU’s win would have been drowned out by the endless comparisons and analysis of the teams playing for the men’s title.
Now the women are getting the same kind of treatment the men get, with every detail parsed over and picked apart. Did Angel Reese really diss Caitlin Clark? Or was she mimicking what the Iowa star did just last week? Was this game part of an on-the-job training program for officials? Or did they really think the sold-out crowd and millions more watching at home were there to see them?
In the hours after the game ended, “Taunting,” “LET THEM PLAY” and “The Refs” were trending, along with Clark, Iowa and Kim Mulkey.
These are the types of debates that rage white-hot after every significant, and some not-so-significant, event in men’s sports. These side conversations are what keep games in the spotlight long after the final buzzer sounds, and ensure that interest in sports and the people who play them aren’t dependent upon a single game.
This is what women’s sports has, for too long, lacked.
Yes, some of the debates went too far. First, Google “Clark and John Cena,” or Reese and ring things, and then calm down. Second, if you are outraged at LSU players boasting about their title and it coming at the expense of America’s new favorite player, you’re going to be horrified when I tell you about a guy named Michael Jordan. Or Aaron Rodgers.
“Twitter is going to go on a rage every time, and I’m happy. I feel like I’ve helped grow women’s basketball this year,” Reese said, grinning. “I’m super happy and excited.”
As she should be.
This is a watershed time in women’s sports, with interest and investment skyrocketing, and this tournament was further evidence of that. Viewership for Friday night’s semifinal between Iowa and previously unbeaten South Carolina peaked at 6.6 million people, and Sunday’s final was broadcast on ABC.
The tournament drew a record 357,542 fans. It cost you more – a lot more – to get a ticket for Sunday’s game on the secondary market than it did to see Taylor Swift.
“My past five years here, I’ve seen the game grow more than I ever thought it could. I’m just so grateful that the sport we love and give our heart to, I’m just so glad that so many people are tuning in and loving it so much,” Iowa’s Monika Czinano said.
“Buckle up,” she added. “It’s only going to get more exciting and more fun.”
If you were following along on social media, you’d know Czinano was the victim of some of the worst officiating since the Tuck Rule, fouling out of her final game with almost 6½ minutes left. The only thing more egregious was LSU coach Kim Mulkey not being called for a technical for contact with an official.
Or maybe it was Clark being T’d up for throwing a ball under the basket.
You get the idea. The point is, people are invested in a way they’ve never been before. They’re invested in the way they’ve traditionally been in men’s sports.
“I love reading those comments,” Reese said. “I have all the screenshots of what everybody has said about me all season. What are you going to say now?”
Love ’em, hate ’em, doesn’t really matter so long as people are talking about ’em. No one can argue with that.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.