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Can Caitlin Clark’s stardom elevate WNBA interest levels?

The Athletic has live coverage of the 2024 WNBA draft.

Just eight days after playing for an NCAA national championship, Caitlin Clark is poised to become the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft and burst into the professional ranks with the star power to jolt the league at a pivotal moment in its trajectory.

Throngs of fans are expected to tune in for Monday night’s national broadcast when the Iowa star is all but certain to be selected by the Indiana Fever. From the moment her name is called and Clark takes center stage, she will become the WNBA’s most anticipated rookie in years. A popularity boost similar to the effect she had in women’s college basketball could follow her with every logo 3-pointer she makes and each pin-point pass she throws.

At Iowa, Clark’s impact was even greater than her resumé, which itself was outstanding with three conference tournament titles, two national championship appearances, and dozens of broken records, including the NCAA Division I all-time scoring mark. When Clark played, every game was appointment-viewing. Arenas sold out and television ratings records shattered.

The WNBA has already been on an ascent over the last few seasons with increases in nationally broadcast games, greater attendance and more media coverage. But Clark, who even South Carolina coach Dawn Staley described as “one of the GOATs of our game” after beating Iowa in the championship, is expected to catalyze a surge in fandom, television viewership, attendance and media coverage like no player before. Clark likely will have to continue to perform well and move the Fever out of their bottom-dweller status (Indiana hasn’t made the postseason since 2016) to further juice the WNBA economy. But the early returns indicate she will have an outsized impact.

“I would trade my whole team for her,” said one general manager, granted anonymity by The Athletic to speak freely about Clark. “Partly because our owner would do it to sell tickets. But on top of that, that’s such a great piece to start to build around. She’s (like Diana) Taurasi coming out, and look what Taurasi’s done.”

Clark will debut in the WNBA at just the right time. The league, entering its 28th season, is on the cusp of a two-year window that could determine its long-term health and future. It announced the addition of a 13th team last fall and intends to expand to 16 teams, according to sources with knowledge of the league’s plans. Charlotte, Toronto and Denver are among the front-runners, and stakeholders from Nashville, Philadelphia, Portland and South Florida have expressed interest to the league about adding a team.

A new media rights deal looms after the 2025 season. Negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement are likely coming soon, too, and with it, talks about changes to league travel, roster size and salaries — including how players and the league split revenue. If the league’s economics improve — which Clark could impact by her potentially significant draw for sponsors — players could benefit from that, too, in the form of playoff bonuses and more travel accommodations.

The success of the 2024 draft class, led by Clark but also including college stars like Cameron Brink, Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese, will help shape the WNBA for years to come. Partnerships and media deals remain the league’s largest sources of revenue, and Clark has been a magnet for sponsors and a driver of record ratings in recent seasons.

That, coupled with her on-court prowess, is why obtaining the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft was so consequential.

“Caitlin is going to be Caitlin Clark,” said Chicago Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who also played in the WNBA and coached in the NBA. “She is an incredible talent, going to do amazing things in the WNBA. And it does an incredible thing for us, for the WNBA because of the fan base that follows along with her.”

The frenzy surrounding Clark in college is already carrying over to the WNBA. Thirty-six Fever games — 90 percent of its schedule — will be on national television this upcoming season, one more than the back-to-back champion Las Vegas Aces. According to ticket marketplace Vivid Seats, as of Wednesday, the average sold price for Indiana Fever tickets increased 190 percent since last season. The average list price on Vivid Seats for Indiana’s season-opener against the Connecticut Sun was up 91 percent since Clark declared for the WNBA Draft in late February.

Even before Clark officially joins the Fever, opposing franchises have scheduled around her expected presence. The Aces moved their July 2 home game against Indiana from their usual stadium into the larger T-Mobile Arena, which can accommodate 6,000 more people. The Minnesota Lynx are holding Maya Moore’s jersey retirement on the same night they host the Fever at the end of August. The Phoenix Mercury are already promoting their first contest against Indiana as The GOAT (Taurasi) vs. The Rook (Clark).

According to StubHub, sales for the Indiana Fever are up more than 13 times as of Thursday compared to this same time last year. “Caitlin Clark is already having a huge impact on the WNBA,” StubHub spokesperson Adam Budelli said in a statement.

This is nothing new to Clark, who sold out all but two games as a senior and drew 55,000 fans for an exhibition game inside Iowa’s football stadium. Clark doesn’t just get fans to spend money on tickets, though, she also pulls in sponsors. She has a growing list of endorsements from blue chip companies — Gatorade and State Farm, for instance — and is on the cusp of a new sneaker deal. Multiple sources with knowledge of the sneaker industry said Clark is set to sign a deal for more than $1 million annually, which would be one of the richest among WNBA players.

The WNBA, which relies on its partnerships as a large source of revenue, could see an influx of new companies interested in working with the league to be tied to Clark, and the Fever could see a boom. Clark’s effect on television ratings could have even more significant implications for the future of the WNBA. Ratings for the WNBA increased last season. The finals averaged 728,000 viewers across ABC and ESPN — the highest in 20 years. Yet Clark’s presence is likely to make the league more bullish as it enters those discussions.

South Carolina’s win over Iowa in the title game was seen on ABC by 18.9 million viewers, with a peak audience of 24.1 million — a 90 percent increase from the 2023 title game and a 289 percent increase from 2022. ESPN said it was the most-watched non-football or Olympics sporting event (men’s or women’s, college or pro) since 2019. The game broke viewership records that were just set days before in the national semifinal and Iowa’s Elite Eight matchup against LSU. All told, women’s college basketball viewership records were shattered across seven different networks in 2023-24, with Iowa taking part in each game.

Highest rated WCB games

Teams Event Ratings TV

Iowa vs. South Carolina

2024 championship

18.9 M

ABC

Iowa vs. UConn

2024 national semifinals

14.4 M

ESPN

Iowa vs. LSU

2024 regional championship

12.3 M

ESPN

Iowa vs. LSU

2023 national championship

9.9 M

ESPN

The WNBA’s current TV deals will run through the 2025 season when its partnerships with ESPN, Amazon, CBS and Ion are set to expire. Its next media rights deal is likely to encompass both linear television and streaming broadcasts and could be a hybrid of some of the NBA’s current rights partners and rights partners unique to the WNBA, just as it’s structured now.

The NBA is in the middle of its exclusive negotiating window with Disney, which owns ESPN, and Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns TNT Sports. It is parceling together the WNBA rights with the NBA as it goes to market, and representing the WNBA in those talks (the NBA owns a 42.5 percent stake in the league, and several people own teams in both leagues).

Warner Bros. Discovery has shown interest in acquiring WNBA rights in the U.S., according to one person with knowledge of the talks. It just bought the right to broadcast the league in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The next media deal will come with increasing rights fees for women’s sports. The National Women’s Soccer League agreed to deals that will pay the soccer league $60 million annually. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told CNBC she hopes to “at least double” the WNBA’s current fees, reportedly about $60 million annually, on its next deal.

“There’s no doubt, I think, especially over enormous interest, most recently around women’s college basketball and the growth in the WNBA over the last few years that the interest is heightened from where it used to be,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said when discussing the next media deal.

Clark’s popularity also has impacted the sports gambling market, which could be a way to bring in viewers and consumers. The Iowa-South Carolina championship game was the biggest women’s single betting event of all time on FanDuel, breaking the handle record set in Iowa’s Final Four matchup against UConn. The title game also featured a 155 percent increase in handle on FanDuel over the 2023 Iowa-LSU championship game, the company said.

Bettors already seem to be following Clark to the pros, where FanDuel said that 76 percent of 2024 WNBA MVP bets, as of April 10, have been placed on the future Fever guard. If they also turn into viewers, it is a potential additional way for the league to lift ratings and attendance.

Central to Clark’s appeal is her greatness on the court. Before the national championship, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder expressed concern about how fatigue might affect Clark’s debut season — there is only about a month between her final college game and her first WNBA regular-season contest. Taurasi, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 WNBA Draft, said that Clark, like other rookies, will need time to adjust.

“There’s a period of grace that you have to give rookies when they get to the league,” Taurasi said. “We’ve had some of the greats to ever play basketball, and it takes two or three years to get used to a different game (against) the best players in the world. As long as everyone has expectations that are realistic, they should be fine.”

Yet, Indiana will look to set up Clark for success in both the short- and long-term. She will have an ideal pick-and-roll partner in reigning, unanimous Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston, and she’ll play in a backcourt alongside 2023 All-Star Kelsey Mitchell. WNBA opponents — bigger, faster and stronger than what she faced in college — will attack Clark defensively. Still, some — even those tasked with limiting her success this season — are already bullish about her potential impact.

“Her game is going to translate,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said. “You can see her work ethic, her professionalism already right now, at Iowa, in how she approaches her craft.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Visual data: John Bradford / The Athletic, Amy Cavenaile / The Athletic; Photos of Fever logo and Caitlin Clark: M. Anthony Nesmith / Icon Sportswire / Getty, Thien-An Truong / ISI Photos)


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