The time has come for Caitlin Clark to walk away from college basketball.

Following Sunday’s Final Four loss to South Carolina, Clark finishes one win shy of being crowned a national champion for the second consecutive season. Despite this shortcoming, the 22-year-old from West Des Moines, Iowa, has forever changed women’s college basketball.

Caitlin Clark’s impact on college basketball

Clark’s generational talent enabled her to break records on and off the court over the past four seasons.

On Friday, 14.2 million viewers tuned in to watch Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes beat UConn in the Final Four, which became the most-watched women’s college basketball game in history, Front Office Sports reported. The broadcast surpassed the record Iowa-LSU broke in the Elite Eight round on Monday and peaked with 17 million viewers.

It also became ESPN’s most-watched basketball game — men’s or women’s, college or professional — and the network’s second-most-watched non-football broadcast, only trailing the 2014 World Cup match between U.S. and Portugal.

Cindy Brunson, who has covered college and professional women’s basketball for 20 years, told the Deseret News that people are finally discovering the appeal of women’s sports.

“It’s really happening. We’re starting to get traction, and 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. You just have to put the great product in front of people, whether it’s soccer, volleyball, basketball, lacrosse. Whatever it is, get it on linear TV where it is easy to find and invite people to help you make money because that is what will happen.”

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Viewership records for women’s basketball

Friday’s record viewership number didn’t come out of nowhere.

Sports Media Watch reported that Iowa’s first game of the tournament against No. 16-seed Holy Cross drew in 3.23 million viewers — the most for a pre-Final Four game.

This figure was later surpassed in both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds — and not just for Iowa’s games, according to ESPN.

These postseason numbers build off the record viewership from the regular season, when major networks experienced a 60% increase in viewership, according to Forbes.

This season delivered the most-watched regular season women’s college basketball game broadcast in 25 years and the most-watched women’s college basketball conference tournament game ever, as the Deseret News previously reported.

Attendance at women’s basketball games

In addition to tuning in, fans are showing up.

ESPN’s Holly Rowe reported that 19,000 fans registered just to attend South Carolina and Iowa’s practices Saturday ahead of Sunday’s championship game.

Those fans weren’t all there for Clark and Iowa, based on the tears from one young fan after South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso signed her hoodie.

For the first time, Iowa women’s basketball season tickets sold out this year, and tickets for all rounds of the Big 10 women’s basketball tournament — which Iowa won — sold out two weeks before the start of the tournament, as the Deseret News previously reported.

“Women’s basketball can draw,” Brunson said. “It can fill seats and arenas across the country. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. People just have to get in the door.”

What’s causing this growth? Longtime women’s basketball broadcaster Brenda VanLengen told the Deseret News that it’s not just Clark.

“I think we’re just seeing a lot of growth in women’s sports, not just basketball but volleyball and soccer and softball,” she said. “I just think there’s an overall greater awareness and appreciation for the talents. With social media, there’s opportunities for fans to get to know the women better.”

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Women’s sports experiencing an uptick in advertising

Advertisers are noticing the surge in attention paid to women’s games.

This year, ad slots for the women’s tournament sold out and featured 42 first-time advertisers, Gist reported.

The 2024 tournament is expected to generate $25 million — a major turnaround from a claim made in 2016 by then-NCAA president Mark Emmert that the tournament lost $14 million.

“People are waking up and smelling the coffee about investing in the women’s game, and the student athletes and athletes at every level,” Brunson said. “I think in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Title IX a couple years ago, everybody had to look in the mirror and say, ‘Are we doing enough? Are we doing it right?’ And a lot of the times, unfortunately, the answer was no. But people are trying to make a wrong right, and it’s a good thing.”

What’s next for women’s sports fandom?

Only time will tell if recent viewership, advertising and attendance trends will continue in women’s college basketball next season once Clark moves on to the WNBA.

Brunson is among those who believe other young stars will be able to hold people’s attention, including Hannah Hidalgo at Notre Dame and JuJu Watkins at USC. She even sees Watkins, who set the national freshman scoring record this season with 920 points, potentially exceeding what Clark accomplished on the court.

Meanwhile, UConn’s Paige Bueckers, who has quite a spotlight of her own, is hoping that fans will learn to love the sport as a whole and not just a few individual players.

“There are so many names in college basketball now that are huge, that are stars, that deserve credit, and I think ... the media can do a better job of making sure everybody gets love,” she told reporters this week.

Brunson said viewers who enjoyed following women’s college basketball this season can look forward to seeing more heroics from Clark and others in the WNBA.

“If you like what you see in college, it’s even better in the WNBA because there’s only 140-some of the best players in the world hooping night-in and night-out,” Brunson said.

2024 WNBA draft declarees Clark, LSU’s Angel Reese, South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso and Stanford’s Cameron Brink are expected to excel in the WNBA this summer alongside the players who already dominate the league.

Brunson said if you enjoy women’s basketball, especially the Elite Eight round and beyond, where “it’s just iron against iron, night-in and night-out,” then you’re in for a treat when you tune into the WNBA.

“That’s every night in the WNBA,” she said.

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How do fans keep the momentum going?

If fans want to help women’s sports continue to grow, they have to continue following the action even after the magic of March has ended, Brunson said.

“I think if you just come and watch, and then when the games are on TV, tune in, lock it in, put the remote control down — don’t flip around (channels),” Brunson said. “Make sure the ratings are strong. Make sure the advertisers are happy and support the game, and then (you must) support at the local level. If you have a university in your area, if you have great high school basketball being played in your area, go watch. Let those teams know you see them and you appreciate what they’re doing. All of it matters.”