April 29, 2024

A New Era: Basketball Braces for #1 WNBA Draft Pick Caitlin Clark

This past women’s college basketball season, all eyes have been on Caitlin Clark. She shattered countless records, including the college basketball scoring and three-point records, achieved a 40-point triple double in a tournament game, and amassed 3,000 points and 1,000 assists. Leading the Iowa Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament final, Clark ultimately fell to undefeated South Carolina. She was the top pick in the WNBA draft, with massive media attention and a stacked rookie class. As the women’s NCAA tournament gains popularity, the WNBA and its teams eagerly embrace Clark, while some current and former women's basketball stars aim to temper expectations.

wnba draft

The League

The WNBA launched in 1997 and saw its most-watched season in over a decade last year. Increased attendance, viewership, gambling, and fan engagement signal that the WNBA and women’s sports are on the rise. Women’s college basketball has also been dominating sports discussions lately, with record-breaking viewership during the tournament. The championship game alone averaged around 19M viewers, marking the highest viewership for a basketball game in five years and the most-watched annual sporting event outside of football since 2019. Caitlin Clark, the top WNBA draft pick, has been a major focus, but she's not the only standout. The draft drew 2.4M viewers, showcasing the class’ collective star power, including Paige Bueckers, Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardozo, Juju Watkins, Cameron Brink all poised to lead the WNBA into its next era.

After a standout year in the WNBA and college basketball, how will the league leverage its incoming talent? WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert likened this draft class to the NBA’s 1979 class with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, which revitalized the NBA. They'd come just in time- former CBS President Neal Pilson claimed he “almost took the NBA off the air.” This moment also aligns perfectly with the WNBA's US TV rights deal up for renewal in 2025, aiming to double their revenue from the current $60M deals with ESPN, Amazon, and Ion. They've also secured a multi-year deal with TNT Sports for international broadcasts.

The Teams

Rarely does a player emerge who shakes up the league before being drafted, but Caitlin Clark is one such phenomenon. The hype surrounding the Iowa star has prompted WNBA teams to revamp their storytelling, marketing, capacity, and audience. This is evident in the extensive preparation for arguably the most talked-about female athlete worldwide. The consensus top pick in the draft was virtually assured, leading the Indiana Fever to secure a staggering 36 out of 40 national television appearances before the draft. To put this in perspective, the last time the Fever made the playoffs was in 2016, with only one winning season since their 2012 WNBA Championship. Last season, they had just 22 national broadcast games, one on ESPN and none on ABC, with some games only streamed on Facebook. The Caitlin Clark effect is palpable, and the Fever plan to ride that wave as far as her star power takes them.

Teams like the Las Vegas Aces and Phoenix Mercury are also capitalizing on Caitlin Clark's popularity to elevate their brand. The Aces relocated a game to T-Mobile Arena, expanding seating from 12,000 to 18,000 in anticipation of Clark's presence. The Mercury framed their June 30th game against the Fever as Taurasi vs Clark, emphasizing the showdown between the GOAT and the Rook. They even promoted Clark with a silhouette and her jersey number before the draft to drive ticket sales. This buzz is just the start, with excitement building as the new rookie class hits the court.

The Players

Some veteran players and WNBA legends view the new rookie class, especially Caitlin Clark, as competition rather than allies. Diana Taurasi and Brianna Stewart, both UConn alumni with a combined 5 WNBA and 7 NCAA championships, have publicly criticized Clark's style of play. Taurasi's viral comment about Clark facing "grown women'' and the “reality” of playing in the WNBA received backlash, while Stewart emphasized the importance of winning championships, despite acknowledging Clark's records. Their remarks contrast with positive feedback from former number one pick Chiney Ogwumike, who hailed Clark as the greatest shooter in basketball.

Ogwumike, a respected analyst and former WNBA All-Star, highlighted Clark's long-range shooting and dynamic playmaking abilities showcased at Iowa. She said that Clark will definitely have her “welcome to the league moments,” but believes Clark will make a significant impact on the Indiana Fever. Notably, Ogwumike included Clark on her college basketball Mount Rushmore, underscoring her potential to leave a lasting legacy in the sport.

ryan de hamer yilpftAIsSA unsplash edited scaled - A New Era: Basketball Braces for #1 WNBA Draft Pick Caitlin Clark - Athelo Group

Looking Ahead 

Despite differing opinions within the basketball community, Clark's arrival has undeniably sparked excitement for the upcoming season. She comes during a rising tide for women’s basketball, with the NCAA Tournament and WNBA draft garnering more attention than ever. As she transitions from collegiate success to professional competition, all eyes will be on her as she navigates the challenges and opportunities of the WNBA. Whether she lives up to the hype or faces setbacks, Clark's journey is sure to be closely followed by fans and critics alike. The WNBA's ability to capitalize on the popularity of incoming draft class stars like Clark should shape the narrative of women's basketball for years to come.

Sources:

  1. https://www.indystar.com/story/sports/basketball/wnba/fever/2024/04/10/indiana-fever-get-most-national-tv-games-on-wnba-2024-schedule-caitlin-clark-aliyah-boston/73277269007/ 
  2. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/caitlin-clark-wnba-las-vegas-aces-game-bigger-venue-indiana-fever-anticipated-to-be-first-draft-pick/ 
  3.  https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/wnba-tv-deal-tnt-sports/ 
  4. https://www.cnn.com/2024/04/10/us/ncaa-womens-basketball-ratings-dg/index.html
  5. https://espnpressroom.com/us/press-releases/2023/04/espn-platforms-set-unparalleled-records-with-ncaa-division-i-womens-basketball/
  6. https://www.outsports.com/2024/4/10/24091129/wnba-draft-caitlyn-clark-indiana-first-pick-diana-taurasi-breanna-stewart/
  7. https://ftw.usatoday.com/lists/the-brewing-beef-diana-taurasi-has-with-caitlin-clark-explained
  8. https://www.wnba.com/news/2023-season-record-breaking-success-recap 
  9. https://espnpressroom.com/us/press-releases/2023/10/espns-game-4-of-the-2023-wnba-finals-presented-by-youtubetv-is-most-watched-game-on-record/ 
  10. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/wnba/2024/04/15/caitlin-clark-wnba-draft-indiana-fever-angel-reese-cathy-engelbert/73308027007/ 
  11. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10117128-2024-wnba-draft-draws-record-24m-viewers-amid-caitlin-clark-angel-reese-hype 
  12. https://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/wnba/mercury/2024/04/09/phoenix-mercury-release-tickets-indiana-fever-caitlin-clark/73263900007/ 
  13. https://www.overtimeheroics.net/2024/04/08/caitlin-clark-is-the-most-impactful-player-that-the-game-has-seen-in-a-generation-espn-analyst-chiney-ogwumike-believes-clark-should-be-considered-for-ncaas-mount-rushmore/

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