Caitlin Clark, What's Next for Women's College Basketball?

CLEVELAND – And then it was over. The confetti fell. At 5:10 p.m. Sunday, inside Rockets Mortgage Fieldhouse, Kaitlin Clark wasn't at the center of the basketball world, but maybe 10 steps away.

South Carolina celebrated nearby, hands and heads all wrapped up in joy. Gamecox, not Iowa, won the national title, meaning Clark lost in the championship game for the second year in a row. She stood behind the coaches and waited to shake hands. She was, at that moment, a living artifact—a breath, a sigh, responsible for so much change. She had to leave college without winning the final game of a season.

Of course, Clark's influence on women's college basketball cannot be measured in any way. Win or lose, the Hawkeyes are going to wake up Monday and face life without the mind-bending star — which she had, but the responsibility of using the 6-foot guard as a trampoline. Clark didn't just change the game in four years at Iowa. He created his own economy, turning talent into business and then business into progress.

Five years ago, This is ESPN ranked first in the 2020 high school recruiting class: Paige Bookers, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink, Clark and Camila Cardoso, who helped South Carolina to a 38-0 finish on Sunday. But with Bueckers not the only one turning pro this month, how has women's college basketball sustained this explosion in popularity?

“The WNBA gets it right,” all-time great Candace Parker said Sunday. “I think that's the next thing. So whatever that means.”

“Do you have three hours?” She asked smiling. “I want to stop the conversation that your peak is in college. I hope it stops with this generation.

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“This team came at a really good time,” Clark said during his postgame news conference, “whether it's social media, whether it's the NIL, whether it's our games being nationally televised. We've played on Fox, NBC, CBS, ESPN. – You go down the list, we were on every national TV channel. I think that's one of the biggest things that helped us. No matter what sport it is, give them the same opportunities, believe in the same, invest in them the same, and things are going to really flourish.

This women's basketball boom is star-driven, with Clark leading the way. Parker wants the next chapter to be defined by rivalries. She wants ESPN to find a prime-time slot when Clarke and Reese first team up in the WNBA. Just like Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson in the 1979 title game between Indiana State and Michigan State – it doesn't matter what jersey they're wearing.

The WNBA should pay better, Parker added. But he predicts a cumulative effect if the league converts more college basketball fans — especially freshmen. Increased WNBA interest will focus more attention on top college players, sustaining the surge past Clark and Reese and extending it to the Bukers, Juju Watkins and beyond. A larger, more engaged WNBA audience will want to know who's coming next year. This Clark-fueled moment doesn't have to be fleeting. Maybe speed instead.

On Friday, Iowa's semifinal win over Connecticut was the most-watched basketball game in ESPN history, averaging 14.2 million viewers (and peaking at 17 million). The Indiana Fever are expected to draft Clark with the first pick on April 15. She will begin her WNBA career with a preseason game on May 3. The Fever's regular season opener is May 14 at Connecticut.

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“People love stories,” Parker said. “That's why you come to music.”

Let another women's basketball legend, Sue Bird, open it up.

“What you saw today were two special storylines,” Bird said after Sunday's title game. “… You were on one side with Iowa Caitlin, who obviously had such an impact on the game. Conversations around her – does she have to win to become the Goat? – and following his career and all the records he broke. So when you see this team that felt like there was some sort of destiny attached to this team – it felt like destiny to get to the finals – you see that play. South Carolina, on the other hand, is trying to get a little bit of a revenge season and maybe not fail, making up for last year and winning the whole thing. You had these two great storylines that drove the game. Now we have them.

With ninety seconds left Sunday, Iowa down nine, Clarke screamed in and left a floater short. Her shoulders slumped. She glanced at the clock and shook her head. On most nights, against most teams, Clarke would have made a comeback faintly, foolishly possible. That, too, is part of her legacy — the astonishing permission to transcend logic, to think big enough to make yourself laugh. He scored 18 points in the first quarter, 13 of them in two minutes of game time. He broke the record for career tournament points in four fewer games than the previous holder.

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However, sometimes, games focus on mathematics. Running out of possessions. Then you blink and the four years are over, leaving you with an existential challenge.

“People don't remember every win or every loss,” Clark said. “I think they'll remember the moments they shared at one of our games or watching on TV or how excited their young daughter or son was to watch girls basketball. I think that's really cool.”

Sally Jenkins contributed to this report.

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