Driven by Caitlin Clark mania, women’s basketball soars on sellout crowds

by Kendra Nordin Beato from The Christian Science Monitor, U.S.

College women's basketball is making history, selling out crowds and creating intense fan clubs. Behind it all is Caitlin Clark, a University of Iowa senior who embodies the future of the game.

155110Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts during senior day after the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Clark broke the NCAA basketball all-time scoring record during the second quarter. Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports/NPSTrans/toppic

When the University of Iowa tips off against Penn State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament March 8, one thing will be clear to the 20,000 fans fortunate enough to hold a ticket: History is taking flight from center court.

The women’s tournament at the Target Center in Minneapolis is sold out for the first time, with more than 109,000 fans expected to attend the five-day event that wraps up Sunday. And it’s largely because Iowa phenom Caitlin Clark sinks 3-pointers in the basket from the midcourt logo like she’s taking out the trash.

Caitlin Clark mania has firmly taken hold across the nation as the senior wraps up her NCAA career, drawing unprecedented attention to the women’s game. “Clarkies” line up for hours in the northern cold seeking tickets and autographs. Her No. 22 Iowa jerseys and shirts have been on backorder for weeks. Fans are snapping up cases of limited-run Caitlin’s Crunch Time cereal. She’s signed deals with Gatorade, Nike, and State Farm, and she’s the first female athlete to earn a multi-year exclusive deal with the prestigious sports trading card company Panini America. She is widely expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA draft.

Iowa Hawkeyes fan Suzanne Moore says being in the stands when Ms. Clark made one of her now-famous “logo 3s” against Minnesota on Feb. 28 at the sold-out Williams Arena was unreal.

“Caitlin comes out and she shoots four 3-pointers right away. I’m sitting with my friends who are Minnesota fans and we’re just looking at each other and saying, wow, we can’t believe what we’re seeing, you know? And then the crowd goes nuts,” recalls Ms. Moore, a retired public health nurse from Albert Lea, Minnesota. Ms. Clark sank eight 3-pointers that night. “You just have the feeling that we’re never going to see [a player like] this again,” Ms. Moore adds.

155110Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports/NPSTrans/TopPicIowa City, Iowa, USA; Iowa Hawkeye fans react before the game as Caitlin Clark (not pictured) attempts to set the NCAA basketball all-time scoring record against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Less than a week later, as 3.4 million television viewers tuned in to watch, Ms. Clark toppled the NCAA scoring record – men’s and women’s – with a legendary career point total of 3,685. 

And yet, this Iowa born-and-raised, 6-foot tall basketball star embodies the duality of what it takes to climb to the height of the game – competitive and combative on the court while also exuding Midwest nice after the final buzzer. She’s been criticized for trash-talking her rivals but has pushed back on what many see as a double standard against competitive women. Off the court, she’s quick to acknowledge her teammates and coaches for what has become an unparalleled collegiate career. She pivots like an effortless spin move between the crush of fan attention, mid-court pressure, and scrutiny over her record feats. All the while, she preserves the warmth of the black-and-gold sisterhood – inspiring female basketball players of all generations.

“This is Caitlin’s moment,” says Kathy Hagerstrom, former head basketball coach at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and a former Division I college player. She’s been tracking Ms. Clark’s success since her freshman year at Iowa. “She’s been incredibly gracious in reaching her hand out to others to pull them up onto the podium with her, which I just think is a testament to her, a testament to her parents, a testament to her coach, of being able to include others in her moment.”

Ms. Clark’s barn-storming run to the NCAA record has drawn comparison to the legacies of prior college basketball record holders Kelsey Plum (3,527), Lynette Woodard (3,649), and Pete Maravich (3,667) as each mark fell to her relentless drive to the net. 

Ms. Hagerstrom, for one, is grateful for the opportunity to highlight the historic record and thinks the current fast-moving pace of the game means future generations of players will continue raising the bar and breaking records.

“Lynette Woodard, back in her day, was doing stuff that no one had ever seen before, like Caitlin Clark shooting unbelievable logo 3s and [her] amazing court vision with her fastbreak transition passing,” says Ms. Hagerstrom, who played against Ms. Woodard as a forward for the University of Nebraska in the early 1980s. “Records are at that moment in time. Life changes, the game changes, and the record is still the record.”  

But to Iowa alums and fans scattered across the country, this moment is about more than records. Caitlin Clark mania has delivered something else: a swell of affection and pride for the land of corn, state fairs, and now women’s basketball. 

“Watching the little University of Iowa get the press and the attention it has, it just melts your heart,” says Melanie Cordes, an Iowa alum and die-hard Hawkeyes fan who retired to West Melbourne, Florida. “When the basketball players talk about how much they love their coach and the state of Iowa, I know exactly what they mean,” she says, choking back tears.  

Ms. Cordes didn’t start following the women’s team until last year, when Ms. Clark led Iowa to the NCAA national championship game for the first time only to lose to Louisiana State University. The full-hearted grandma plans to be in her Iowa gear all day before she gathers with her family to watch the Big Ten quarterfinals Friday night. 

The women’s NCAA tournament is scheduled to begin March 20. Even if Ms. Clark and Iowa don’t win the national title this year, Ms. Cordes is already looking to the future. She’ll be following the WNBA for the first time.

“I can’t imagine not watching her play,” she says of Ms. Clark. “I want to watch her transition into the pros.”

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Page created on 3/10/2024 10:57:23 PM

Last edited 3/10/2024 11:15:03 PM

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