A lot can change in three years.

Women’s college basketball went from not having access to the NCAA’s March Madness tournament branding to teams selling out arenas and putting up record viewership numbers.

This amazing turnaround largely stems from the popularity of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who became NCAA Division I basketball’s all-time leading scorer for men and women this season.

Once the NCAA Women’s Tournament starts Friday, all eyes will be on her. She should be used to it by now.

“Caitlin Clark in particular has managed to capture the interest and keep it because she’s a generational player who is playing the game unlike any other woman that we have seen because of the logo threes. We’ve really only seen that in basketball from Steph Curry consistently, and no one has done it in the women’s game to this point,” said Cindy Brunson, who’s been covering women’s basketball for 20 years. “She’s shattering every record that was ever put up, and she’s done it in a four-year time span.”

Basketball fans have flocked to arenas across the Midwest or to the couches in front of their TVs to watch Clark’s pursuit of basketball history. The 2023-2024 season saw:

  • The most-watched women’s college basketball conference tournament game ever: Iowa vs. Nebraska’s Big Ten Championship game averaged over 3 million viewers and peaked with 4.45 million in overtime, according to CBS Sports.
  • The most-watched regular season women’s college basketball game on any network in 25 years: 3.39 million viewers tuned in to watch Clark become the NCAA’s all-time leading Division I scorer, according to Fox Sports.
  • Season tickets for Iowa women’s basketball sold out for the first time in program history, according to CBS Sports. Carver-Hawkeye Arena seats 15,056 fans.
  • All rounds of the Big 10 women’s basketball tournament sold out for the first time ever, according to Gist. The sell-out happened two weeks before the tournament even started, with 109,000 fans snatching up tickets.
  • A 60% viewership increase in women’s basketball for major networks, according to Forbes.

The get-in price for the NCAA Women’s Tournament final are more than double the men’s, according to NBA Central and Tick Pick, and, as of Tuesday, six times as many tickets have been sold for the women’s Final Four than the men’s.

This season’s record viewership was kickstarted by the nearly 10 million people who tuned into ESPN’s 3 p.m. ET — not primetime — broadcast of the 2023 national championship game between Iowa and LSU. It was the most-watched women’s college basketball game ever and the most-watched college basketball game — men’s or women’s — on any ESPN platform, according to the network.

“This is just the beginning,” Brunson said. “The numbers that are being put up in women’s college basketball in particular this year are just scratching the surface of what really can happen.”

Ahead of the Utah Royals’ season opener, team owner and skiing legend Lindsey Vonn echoed Brunson’s thoughts when speaking about the rise of women’s sports more broadly.

“It’s not a moment. It’s a movement, and it’s going to continue on and we’re going to continue to get more support,” she said. “I think we’re only continuing to show what women are capable of — that we can have amazing sports, that we can entertain, that we can have the viewership, that we can have the support.”

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The Caitlin Clark effect

Inside a “wild” Williams Arena in February, Brunson called Iowa’s game at Minnesota. Hawkeye fans made up the majority of the crowd and Clark shirts, jerseys and signs were everywhere.

It was the first time in Brunson’s career when she concentrated the call on just one player.

“It was singular, almost, about Caitlin because she demanded the attention,” she said. “She scored the first 15 points of the game. She opened on a personal 9-0 run, and she was doing it from the logo with the three ball. I’ve never seen anything quite like that.”

The only thing to come close to that experience for Brunson, who is also the play-by-play voice for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was calling the game when Diana Taurasi became the first WNBA player to eclipse 10,000 points.

“She commands that attention, and she is so impressive in the fact that she meets the moment,” Brunson said. “She knew that she needed 33 points to eclipse Lynette Woodard that night (to become the all-time leading scorer in major women’s college Division I basketball), and she finished with 33 points.”

Clark warrants so much attention that ESPN is assigning Holly Rowe to be the designated Clark beat reporter for the tournament because “there is an intrigue and appetite for all things Caitlin,” Rowe told The Athletic.

The extra cameras on Clark don’t stop there. NFL Hall of Famer Peyton Manning’s production company, Omaha Productions, has been filming Clark, as well as South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso and UCLA’s Kiki Rice, for the past year for a four-episode docuseries that will be released in May.

Clark brings a spotlight to others

Thanks to Clark, people are finally noticing the other stars of women’s college basketball. They’re also figuring out the appeal of the game.

“What’s great about it is that people have investigated and tried to learn more about the teams in their own area and who else’s been hooping. So JuJu Watkins elevates, and Hannah Hidalgo elevates — at USC and Notre Dame, respectively — and a bevy of players across the country are now getting (to) shine at an unprecedented level because people actually stopped and watched,” Brunson said.

Clark has also put a spotlight on the female pioneers of basketball, according to Brenda VanLengen.

VanLengen, who has called women’s college basketball for nearly 30 years, believes the increased attention on women’s basketball is “a great time to honor and celebrate those that built the foundation for what we have now.”

“Since Caitlin was on track to actually pass Lynette (Woodard)’s record, it gave us the opportunity to really shine the light on Lynette’s record and the time before the NCAA that was under the umbrella of the AIAW organization,” she said.

It’s only fitting that Clark’s success comes while playing for Iowa, said VanLengen, who is also the executive producer of the upcoming docuseries, “If Not For Them.” Girls high school basketball was first played in Iowa one hundred years ago, and Iowa was one of the few states to keep their programs after most states eliminated theirs for decades due to concerns of the sport not being feminine or damaging reproductive organs.

“What Caitlin Clark is experiencing and what she is doing for the sport is built on the shoulders of many, many girls and women in the state of Iowa, that have loved and played basketball for over a century,” she said.

The success of women’s basketball beyond Caitlin Clark

This season’s increased love for women’s basketball extends beyond Clark’s Big Ten.

Brunson was on hand for the January matchup between USC and UCLA and was shocked by the 10,000 fans that showed up and the general admission line that stretched for four blocks down Figueroa St. in Los Angeles. She felt like she had showed up to an NFL game.

“Enough with the general assignment seating,” she said. “Let’s put all this stuff on StubHub, or wherever you get your second-market tickets, and people will snap these tickets up because being at a women’s game now is a vibe. That talent has elevated to such a point where more eyeballs are appreciating it.”

There’s a lot of talent that will still be playing in the college ranks when Clark leaves for the WNBA draft in April, and Brunson sees one of them in particular as possibly eclipsing what Clark accomplished.

“(Freshman) JuJu Watkins is scoring at a clip that surpasses what Caitlin Clark did as a freshman, so if JuJu stays her four years (in college), all the records that we’re seeing Caitlin Clark shatter, JuJu might just say, ‘I got this. Put my name in the record books,’” Brunson said. “You look at when Jackie Stiles had the scoring record in the NCAA, her record stood for about 12 years. Then Kelsey Plum broke it. That record stood for about seven. So now (with) all of these massive records, the timeframe is shrinking because the talent level is elevating, and that is so exciting.”

The momentum will also follow Clark — the likely No. 1 overall pick — to the WNBA. The 1,000 tickets available for the 2024 WNBA draft sold out in 15 minutes, and that’s just to watch stars like Clark, Stanford’s Cameron Brink and Utah’s Alissa Pili walk across the stage when they’re drafted.

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Why it matters

When a young girl sees a player like Clark succeed — or, better yet, interacts with Clark — the eyes of that young girl are opened to a new world of possibilities of what she can do and accomplish in life, VanLengen said, noting that the same can be said for young boys.

“I think it’s important for young girls and young boys to be able to see and appreciate how strong, powerful and successful women can be by having those role models in sports. I think it just opens up the opportunities and dreams for young people to see what’s possible,” VanLengen said. “It’s as important for little boys to see girls in those strong powerful positions as it is for girls to see that because it creates respect and admiration, and it just opens up opportunities for boys and girls to be all that they can be.”

One such experience was pivotal in Clark’s own life. As a young girl, Clark met her idol, Maya Moore. Clark left that experience with a hug from Moore, a signed shirt and her life changed.

That moment came full-circle this month.

“Those connections matter,” Brunson said, which is evident in Clark’s giddiness and shrieks upon meeting Moore again this season.

Clark is aware of the power that those moments can carry and signs countless autographs every game.

When she held a meet-and-greet prior to throwing the first pitch at an Iowa Cubs game last summer, fans started lining up 10 hours before the event. The calls for autographs even follow her to the usually quiet golf course.

“One of the most thrilling things about the Caitlin Clark game that I was a part of, for me, was being swarmed by fans courtside,” Brunson said. “(As broadcasters) we sit low at Minnesota, and fans were reaching their jerseys and signs and things over our heads at the broadcast table for Caitlin Clark to sign. It was incredible.”

Clark and the Hawkeyes kick off their pursuit of their first NCAA Tournament title Saturday at 1 p.m. MDT. Whether they’re crowned champions or not, they’ve already changed the game.