Perspective | Women’s basketball is surging. Are we sure this time is different?

Perspective | Women’s basketball is surging. Are we sure this time is different?

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

A year ago, I grabbed a ticket to watch No. 7 Maryland host No. 6 Iowa, specifically to see long-distance shooting star Caitlin Clark. Terrapins Coach Brenda Frese instructed Lavender Briggs to become Clark’s shadow from baseline to baseline, and Maryland held Clark to an unspectacular 18 points while drubbing Iowa, 96-68.

Clark, coming off a 42-point barrage against Maryland in the Hawkeyes’ gym a few weeks earlier, was the same Clark this season as she marched toward a host of scoring records, a compliment to the accuracy and consistency of her inexhaustible three-point shooting.

But on that February 2023 weekday night in College Park, there was no need for scalpers. The matchup wasn’t a sellout. I was one of 9,065 who comfortably fit into Maryland’s 17,950-seat Xfinity Center to witness Clark’s exploits.

The attention to women’s basketball, from the public and the media, had regressed to its mean. As it always has. That time, it was from the peak of the 2022 women’s championship game, which was celebrated as the most-watched women’s title game in almost 20 years. A previous time, it was after Cheryl Miller’s last game for USC, when 11.22 million viewers tuned in to the 1986 national title game won by Texas.

Yet here we are again — expressly because of Clark’s exploits — declaring this tsunami of attention an inflection point, an inexorable moment for our attraction to women’s basketball, if not women’s athletics. As Dawn Staley pronounced Sunday after she coached her South Carolina side to an 87-75 championship over Clark and Iowa: “I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport, and it just isn’t going to stop here on the collegiate tour. When she’s the number one pick in the WNBA draft, she’s going to lift that league up as well.”

The South Carolina-Iowa final was a ratings bonanza, averaging nearly 19 million viewers, according to ESPN. That number shattered the previous record — set by Clark’s Hawkeyes in Friday’s national semifinal — by nearly 5 million viewers. But if the past is indeed prologue, another adjustment is coming. That’s just a cold, hard, unfortunate, undeserving truth.

“My feeling is that, too, but I just don’t have the data,” feminist sports scholar Cheryl Cooky at Purdue, who has studied the coverage of women’s sports in regular increments over the past four decades, told me by phone last week. “The viewership numbers, ratings, attendance, ticket price: I think there’s something there. But I’m also skeptical. What we saw in the past is the kind of one-and-done model of coverage. So what happens after the tournament ends?”

Cooky’s last update of women’s sports coverage, titled “One and Done: The Long Eclipse of Women’s Televised Sports, 1989-2019,” concluded again that no matter the occasional uptick in attention to women’s sports, such as during soccer’s World Cup, that curiosity recedes to the ocean, washed away by the dominant tide of men’s sports.

Could anything be different this time?

“You cannot deny the impact of Caitlin Clark on the sport,” Cooky said. “This is what watching women’s sports should feel like. And she is bringing a new fan base to the game. So certainly that’s a piece.”

There is the added exposure of name, image and likeness, the ability for college athletes to sell their popularity to marketers, which has made more of the public aware of extraordinary athletes such as Clark, or USC’s prolific freshman scorer, JuJu Watkins. Watkins is in a national commercial with NBA star Joel Embiid.

There is what comes off, to me, as gratuitous more than sincere commentary from men in the sports arena such as Shaquille O’Neal, who declared Clark the greatest women’s player ever.

There is sports betting, which on my FanDuel app offered Sunday’s championship game between Clark’s Hawkeyes and undefeated South Carolina atop its scroll.

“I think there’s been a movement in investing in women’s sports that happened on the industry side of things,” Cooky said, “and so the economic benefits are more widely recognized.”

The rest of this confluence of factors includes, Cooky pointed out, a tectonic shift of the media landscape, now from cable television to streaming, which has put pressure on traditional broadcasters not to lose viewers.

“So sports media content becomes really crucial because it is the one space where people will tune in [to] watch live,” Cooky said.

Yet a recent Wasserman study before these latest renditions of the NCAA tournaments showed women’s sports made up just 15 percent of sports media coverage in 2022.

“Again, this is where I’m cautiously optimistic,” Cooky said, “or not. Maybe cautiously pessimistic.”

Years ago, when Cooky first surveyed the coverage of women’s sports, she found the favored women’s sport in media to be tennis. Then attention shifted to basketball, where it has been through the 2000s. So against that backdrop, what we have just witnessed was predictable, too.

We in the media have all but said women’s basketball never witnessed a talent such as Clark, citing her shooting prowess. She’s that extension of the Stephen Curry-ization of basketball in the women’s game. Everybody digs the three ball.

But the women’s college game has had plenty of stars whose play was mesmerizing for myriad reasons, such as Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner, Candace Parker, Chamique Holdsclaw, Sheryl Swoopes, anybody (it seemed) at Connecticut, even Dawn Staley at Virginia.

Just as I was moving back to the D.C. area in 2007, the defending national champion Maryland team led by guard Kristi Toliver hosted No. 2 North Carolina, the team it had dispatched in the previous season’s national semifinal. North Carolina was led by Toliver’s point guard adversary, Ivory Latta. I snared a ticket to the campus arena. It was sold out, the largest crowd ever to attend an ACC regular season women’s game.

But that turned out to be just another spike in attention and coverage for a women’s sport. Like I’m afraid this Caitlin Clark-juiced Final Four will also prove to be.

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