Classic Basketball Wednesday: Women’s basketball doesn’t need saving and isn’t about one person

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, July 3, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by The BIG EAST Conference. I’m away this week, but I want to reemphasize the piece I wrote here in March 2023, when Caitlin Clark was still in college at Iowa. It is as relevant as ever.

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People who should know better — no, I’m not bringing you the links, I am too busy this week for Twitter fights — are here once again to tell us who is going to save women’s basketball. The 2023 edition of this trope? Caitlin Clark.

I am not here to take anything away from Clark’s greatness. We’re witnessing something we haven’t seen before. Clark has Diana Taurasi‘s range, with an assist percentage unlike any we’ve seen before, not even from Sue Bird, while committing fewer turnovers than any elite point guard in recent memory. She rebounds like a forward, she is relentless in every aspect of the game, and her Iowa team is as fun to watch as any I can remember.

She will not save women’s basketball because it doesn’t need saving. There’s no light switch to turn the women’s game from where it is at any fixed point into the equivalent, financially and in audience share, to the men’s game. It is about steady growth — about investment, and opportunity, and allowing those very elements to give this incredible sport the foundation it needs.

And yet.

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“Our business is unique in that a player like this can change the whole fortunes and directions of a team, and maybe a league.” That wasn’t about Clark. That was what then-Phoenix Mercury general manager Seth Sulka said back in December 2003 to a New Yorker writer about Taurasi.

This is always the trope! It’s Taurasi, it’s Candace Parker (do yourself a favor, don’t take a swig of anything before reading this or you will guaranteed spit-take), it’s Maya Moore, it’s Three To See (Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins-Smith). It’s what Breanna Stewart was told she needed to do, and Sabrina Ionescu. This idea that women’s basketball can only have one signature athlete, and she will be responsible for turning every skeptic in America into a WNBA season ticket holder, it is an absurd premise.

Taurasi has made fans of a generation of Phoenix citizens, just as Moore accelerated the growth of the sport in Minneapolis. But they didn’t do it by themselves, nor is any failure of some aspect of the current women’s game — attendance or ratings or the metric a naysayer is most eager to grab onto at any moment — the result of a player falling short. Taurasi and Parker and Moore built, and so have Griner and Delle Donne, Diggins-Smith and Stewart, Ionescu and A’ja Wilson and Napheesa Collier. The league is on the cusp of a massive new TV payday. As of now, Clark’s arrival might coincide with that new deal in 2025. Clark isn’t the one who caused it, though, and if it’s smaller than expected, it isn’t Clark’s fault.

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The decision by Taurasi to skip the 2015 WNBA season was met with choruses worrying it would kill the league. It didn’t, of course: Delle Donne reached another level (though I had to comp her to NBA players at the time because we had NO HISTORICAL STATS FOR THE WNBA), and the game continued forward with an overwhelming number of stars. Read that piece, though: Even Delle Donne herself assumed responsibility for leveling up the league economically, when it is always, always, always a systematic problem requiring a systematic solution.

Opportunity means there are more stars, and exposure means more people get to see it. The NCAA Tournament ratings, both for Clark and non-Clark games, have been exponentially higher, year-over-year, than last season.

Caitlin Clark? Sure. Aliyah Boston? You bet. Regular, consistent coverage, time slots, network TV opportunities?

That’s the actual thing. (And no, NCAA, you don’t get to hide behind using women’s basketball as a means of lifting other sports instead of getting the sport its payday, not after using women’s basketball as ballast for the men’s game for 40 years.)

Just like regular, consistent coverage from media, instead of finding the next savior, talking her up and then walking away, is how the game will keep on growing as well.

Stathead Stat of the Week

A’ja Wilson has 540 points through the first 20 games of the season. That’s the most points any WNBA player has scored in the first 20 games of any season.

Stathead is your all-access pass to the Basketball and College Basketball Reference databases. Our discovery tools are built for women’s basketball fans like you. Answer your questions in a matter of seconds.

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By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.