I’d waited all season for this. Watching from courtside during the Seattle regional last weekend, I finally learned what the Caitlin Clark experience is all about. Dagger 3-pointers, of course. But also one-hand passes streaked to every corner of the court. Slithering dribble-drives past stunned defenders. And more rebounds and sprinting layups than I could count.
During Iowa’s 97-83 win over powerhouse Louisville in the round of 8, Clark dominated: 41 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds.
“It felt pretty powerful,” Clark said after the game, smiling slyly.
That’s what the women’s game is right now. The popularity of a sport often rises on the strength of story, on narratives that propel the game forward and compel us to watch. This year’s N.C.A.A. tournament is loaded with them, along with the talent and high stakes that give those narratives meaning.
Yes, the Louisiana State women are exciting, with the do-it-all forward Angel Reese and a fiery, pink-boa-wearing coach, Kim Mulkey, whose outfits would make Elton John swoon. And who can root against a team as cohesive as Virginia Tech?
But there may not be a better story in sports than Clark vs. Aliyah Boston. This week Clark was named national player of the year, supplanting Boston, the 6-foot-5 forward who has produced plenty of memorable moments while leading her team to three straight Final Fours and the 2022 national championship.
Boston could be the top pick in April’s W.N.B.A. draft. But first, she and her superlative coach, Dawn Staley, will try to prove that South Carolina can be a dynasty by getting past Clark and Iowa in Friday night’s Final Four matchup.
The power of the women’s game for narrative and high-stakes, compelling play has been there for years. But it hasn’t always been presented with proper attention. Women’s basketball has been part of a $34 million broadcast contract bundling all N.C.A.A. championships other than football and men’s basketball in the same deal.
Change could soon be on the way: This week, as the N.C.A.A. closed in on a decision about its next broadcast contract, several women’s coaches argued that it is high time for the association to sell the rights to the women’s tournament separately, potentially providing a financial windfall in the range of $81 million to $112 million per year, by one estimate.
“It should happen,” Staley said. “We’re at that place where we’re in high demand. I do believe women’s basketball can stand on its own and be a huge revenue-producing sport that could do, to a certain extent, what men’s basketball has done.”
After finally beginning to have their tournament games broadcast and streamed as artfully as their male counterparts, the popularity of women’s college basketball is surging.
Attendance is up, way up, at this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament.
So are broadcast ratings. Iowa’s regional final with Louisville collected an eye-popping 2.49 million viewers, larger than any of this season’s N.B.A. games on ESPN. The audience for round of 16 games rose 73 percent compared to last season and set a record for total minutes watched.
But this is about more than basketball and sports within the confines of the United States. What we’re witnessing during March Madness is symbolic of a steady shift in the popularity of women’s sports throughout much of the world.
“This isn’t just a moment,” said Cheryl Cooky, a Purdue professor who studies the gender divide in sports. “It’s more than that. It’s the cumulative effect of a decades-long struggle for equality and recognition. We’re at this kind of tipping point of a new era, and the momentum is so great that it cannot be stopped.”
Starting in the 1970s, tennis was the first professional women’s sport to receive wide-scale acceptance and produce multimillion dollar wealth for its players.
Then along came the W.N.B.A. in the 1990s. Over the last 20 years it has bloomed from a start-up to a league with so-called superteams and recognizable stars.
Other sports have the same aspirations, and are gaining steam.
It’s the National Women’s Soccer League, laying a firm foundation for women’s professional soccer in the United States.
It’s 87,000 fans, jamming London’s Wembley Stadium last July for the Women’s European Championship final between England and Germany, a record for the men’s and women’s tournament. It’s 25,000 in the house at Newcastle United last year for a fourth-tier game in the English women’s professional league.
When New Zealand’s women’s rugby team made the World Cup final in 2022, it played before a sellout home crowd of 40,000, doubling the previous finals record.
Female boxers and mixed martial artists were a popular sideshow in the not-too-distant past. These days they are often the show.
I could go on, but you get the point. Investors sure do, and they’re coming armed with cash, the lifeblood of any sport trying to gain favor with fans.
Right now, a clutch of cities — Nashville; Oakland, Calif.; and Toronto to name three — are hoping for new W.N.B.A. franchises, buoyed, perhaps, by the recent valuation of the Seattle Storm at a league-record $151 million.
In India, broadcast rights for premier league cricket games recently sold for roughly $117 million.
Betting on women’s sports is a new frontier in sports investing, according to Kara Nortman, a Los Angeles-based venture capitalist whose company, Monarch Collective, focuses on buttressing women’s sports with game-changing investment dollars.
“When I decided to focus on sports, I asked myself initially ‘Should it be all sports or women’s?’” said Nortman, a co-founder of Angel City Football Club, Los Angeles’s N.W.S.L. team, which averaged a league-leading 19,000 fans last year in its inaugural season.
“I came to this realization — plenty of people invest in men’s sports. It’s harder to have an impact there from a dollar standpoint. But in women’s sports, there’s a huge financial and cultural opportunity to make a difference, drive returns, and get people to pay attention.”
With the Final Four at hand, they are paying attention now, fans new to the women’s game and longtime die-hards, together engrossed by a powerful new chapter in an unfolding story.
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