On Oct. 9, the ticket office at Northwestern University’s athletic department made seats available for a January women’s basketball game. The Wildcats women had never sold out cozy Welsh-Ryan Arena, so the availability of tickets to a game 3½ months off for a program that had been to the NCAA tournament twice in the past quarter century hardly merited a mention.
On Oct. 25, those tickets — mostly general admission, with no assigned seats — sold out. And on Wednesday — the day Northwestern hosted Iowa — fans began lining up at 10 a.m. By that point, the cheapest ticket available for resale on Ticketmaster was $243. The line eventually curled more than halfway around the building.
This is the Caitlin Clark effect, and college basketball has rarely — if ever — seen anything like it. On Saturday night, the Hawkeyes guard comes to Maryland, where the Terrapins will try to limit the player who leads the nation in both scoring and infatuation.
Start with the latter because the fact that Clark almost certainly will finish her career as the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer is secondary to the impact she’s having on her sport. Northwestern’s experience as a host is hardly unique. Xfinity Center, Maryland’s home arena, will be sold out for just the fourth time for a women’s game in its 22-season history. Yeah, Iowa is coming off a Final Four appearance, is 20-2 and ranked third in the country. But that’s not the reason this game sold out all 17,950 tickets — in December.
Live look at the line outside of Welsh-Ryan Arena two hours before Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes tip off against Northwestern.
“We’ve never really seen this around one player,” said Rose DiPaula, Maryland’s director of strategic communications, who has worked closely with the Terrapins women’s program for more than a decade. “Teams, maybe. But this is different.”
Check out the impact. On Jan. 2, 3,263 loyal Purdue fans filed into Mackey Arena to watch the Boilermakers women host Rutgers. Eight days later, Clark and the Hawkeyes arrived for the next home game, and the crowd of 14,876 blew past Mackey’s listed capacity — the fourth sellout in program history.
This after Iowa ushered 55,656 folks into its football stadium to watch the women play an exhibition before the season started. This after 15,196 fans came close to filling an NBA arena in Charlotte — more than 900 miles from Iowa City — for a neutral-site game against fellow Final Four participant Virginia Tech. This in the midst of a season in which all of the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten games, home and away, have been sellouts.
So what precedes Clark’s visit to College Park is not mere hype. Clark justifies it all with her play. There is good reason that tickets for Saturday’s matchup were available on the resale site SeatGeek for $86 (just two, and they’re gone by now) while the same site offers tickets to Maryland’s next home game, against Penn State on Feb. 18, for $4.
She has game. She has game for days. What is analogous in college basketball history — men or women? Stephen Curry at Davidson? Eh, maybe. The Fab Five at Michigan? That was a group effort. Same for the Connecticut women during their 111-game winning streak — a streak that included a win in December 2016 at Maryland, the Terps women’s most recent sellout.
There’s just something visceral to how Clark plays and what she’s doing. There’s no 2024 sports highlight I have watched more than Clark nailing a buzzer-beater to top Michigan State back on Jan. 2. I realize it’s early in the year, but it could be February 2025, and I might say the same thing.
And in all honesty, “nailing a buzzer-beater” does the exchange a disservice. The score was tied when Iowa put the ball in play with just more than 20 seconds left. The announcers on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock — yes, all of Iowa’s Big Ten games are available to a national audience — began the call by saying, “Iowa’s just got to let Caitlin Clark be Caitlin Clark.”
What that meant, in this instance: guard Molly Davis, working the ball to forward Hannah Stuelke on the three-point arc, her back to the basket. Clark, cutting to her right to get open to receive a pass, then pump faking, then sliding to her left and back. When she launched her 20th three-pointer of the night, both of her feet were on the Hawkeyes logo that spans midcourt. When it went through for points 38, 39 and 40 of the game, she ran with her arms extended away from her teammates and toward the Iowa crowd, her shoulders shrugged as if to say, “What else did you expect?”
What else would we expect? It is a special trait in an athlete to be able to handle such scrutiny — from an opposing defense or an opposing crowd — and manage it so sublimely. At a time when women’s college basketball is rife with stars — LSU’s Angel Reese and Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers foremost among them — Clark is playing a different game.
To wit: Clark’s average of 32.1 points per game through Wednesday was more than six points higher than her next closest pursuer (USC’s JuJu Watkins at 25.8.) That difference between Clark and Watkins — 6.3 points — matches the difference between Watkins and West Virginia’s Ja’Naiya Quinerly and UNLV’s Desi-Rae Young — 26 spots down the national scoring list. She makes a best-in-the-nation 5.23 three-pointers a game, a full three-pointer more than anyone else.
Against Northwestern, she passed both Missouri State’s Jackie Stiles and Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell to move into second place on the NCAA Division I all-time scoring list. She finished with 35, her fifth straight 30-point game. That pushed her career total to 3,424 points, 103 off the mark set by former Washington star Kelsey Plum.
Saturday night against Maryland for the record? Eh, that might be too much for even Clark. But at this point in her career — with more records being broken and fewer opportunities to see her with the Hawkeyes — whatever the cost of a ticket, Caitlin Clark seems worth the price of admission.