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The Irreplaceable, Unmistakable Caitlin Clark

The Hawkeyes sophomore scored 46 points Sunday night, hitting threes that sent her to the top of Twitter timelines nationwide. Here’s why that matters.

Right now, though it might only last a couple more weeks, Caitlin Clark is the most important person in women’s college basketball.

You can debate where she ranks among the best players in the nation or how good you think her Iowa Hawkeyes team is. That’s all fair game. But nobody currently playing is able to shoot her way into the feeds of a national audience like her.

Look no further than Sunday night.

Yes, Iowa lost 98-90 at Michigan. Hypothetical detractors will be quick to point that out. But tell me her stat line isn’t wild:

46 points | 14-29 FG | 6-13 3PT | 12-14 FT | 10 assists

If you have a Twitter account, you probably heard her name last night — if only from friends sharing this:

Feel free to watch that two or three more times before we continue.

Raising the Game

Women’s college basketball is growing fast. Last year’s national championship game received the highest TV ratings for a title game since 2014. This is the same tournament in which a women’s game was shown on ABC for the first time since 1995 and every game was broadcast nationally in its entirety for the first time ever.

When Sedona Prince highlighted the disparities between the women’s and men’s tournaments last year, national outlets covered it extensively, bringing to light what coaches around the country have experienced and penning powerful features on inequities in sport.

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I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that those outlets have not done their part to level the playing field. Before Clark’s performance Sunday, here’s what some of the leading sports outlets had done recently around women’s college basketball:

  • Just one of the most recent 22 stories on Sports Illustrated’s NCAA Basketball page was about the women’s game.
  • SportsCenter had tweeted once about women’s basketball since Feb. 1 despite sending more than 20 original tweets per day in that time.
  • CBS Sports has not written a women’s college basketball story since Jan. 23 while publishing 138 men’s stories since then.

All of that is to say that Clark has an ability to break through whatever artificial barriers media outlets have put up around the sport. And when you’re just that awesome, even the replies — the most cynical place on the Internet — reflect her impact on the game.

And no, the talk around Clark’s outburst was not limited to just a few diehard fans or national brands looking to check the box on posting about women’s sports.

Locally, Clark has brought more attention to her program than it has ever received. The Hawkeyes are coming off a Sweet 16 appearance and opened the season ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll — their highest starting position in 25 years. Clark’s hyped matchup with Bueckers in last year’s Sweet 16 lit the sport on fire, causing the two fanbases to clash over which freshman phenom was better, with each side cherry-picking the stats that put their player in the best light.

The 1.6 million fans who tuned into that game made it the second-most-viewed Sweet 16 game in the tournament”s history. Ratings that day were up 66% compared to 2019.

As a result, Iowa was given 13 nationally televised games this year, including two on an ESPN network and one on FS1. Compare that to 2019-20 — the last pandemic-free regular season before this one — when the Hawkeyes were on national TV only seven times, all on the Big Ten Network.

Room to Grow

Like so many other top college basketball players, Clark has dabbled in the new name, image, and likeness rules, allowing her to make some money as a collegiate athlete. Here are her two major NIL deals as of this writing:

  • The Vinyl Studio: Name and number-branded fan gear with “From the Logo” written on it to highlight her remarkable range
  • HyVee: Clark is the first college athlete to sign with the Iowa-based supermarket chain, joining Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Kirk Cousins as partners.

As of today, that appears to be it, but it’s certainly not for a lack of suitors. She said last summer that she would be picky about which opportunities to explore, preferring to keep her focus on basketball.

And for now, basketball’s focus is on her. Her Hawkeyes are now two games behind Michigan for first place in the Big Ten. With outlets like BallisLife and SLAM tweeting about her Sunday and an ESPN2 showdown with Maryland looming next week, there’s an opportunity to keep her in the spotlight.

It shouldn’t take someone with talents so patently absurd as Clark’s to elevate this sport, but for right now, she’s the one who has cracked the code to break through.

And that’s why she’s so damn important.

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