Everybody watches women’s basketball. Now what? — Hear Angel Reese reflect

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

Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by The BIG EAST Conference, and not just in these parts. Everywhere. My 10-year-old daughter, Juliet, is a women’s basketball junkie. And something she’s long felt frustration over was the yawning chasm between how plugged-in we are in this house when it comes to women’s basketball — our calendar and life is in many ways based on the women’s basketball calendar, given my work — and the overwhelming silence of it all when she goes to school, for instance.

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She’s not surprised by it anymore. But even last year, after Caitlin Clark‘s NCAA Tournament run and LSU’s title, she went to school and nobody, not her teacher, not any of the other kids in school, had any idea what she was so worked up about. The same was true this fall, when she attended Game 3 of the WNBA Finals, came in the next day supercharged about it and… everyone was talking about the Philadelphia Eagles. (That did not end well for those kids, incidentally.)

So you can imagine the level of glee with which she told me about how her teacher, back in February, asked her about what it was like to see Caitlin Clark when she returned to school after a work trip she took with me in February. And even better, she reported, almost stunned, that she didn’t even have to start the conversation about Clark after Monday night’s Iowa win over LSU.

Let us stop here for a moment and make it clear that Caitlin Clark’s 30-footers have not, by themselves, cured patriarchy. For instance, many of the boys in Juliet’s class were quick to draw a distinction. They don’t really watch women’s basketball, you see. They just watch Caitlin Clark.

But if that is a distinction lost on you, don’t worry, it isn’t one that really matters. What these boys, and so many other people across the country who are sitting here puzzled about why they care this time don’t realize is that Caitlin Clark isn’t the first women’s basketball player whose game offers universal appeal. She’s simply the first women’s basketball player who’s received sufficient consistent and elevated coverage to allow a critical mass audience to fully immerse themselves in her brilliance.

Clark is exceptional, to be clear. The inherent joy in the arena as she’d stop and pop from anywhere, the beauty of that takeoff and follow-through, the sheer helplessness of her defenders, it’s all the stuff of the great drama that is basketball. The same was true, though, of Breanna Stewart in college, and Maya Moore in college, Diana Taurasi in college, and Tamika Catchings in college, and Ann Meyers Drysdale in college, and many other greats of the game.

Media companies everywhere have been searching for what can goose their traffic, their ratings, their relevance. Caitlin Clark is showing them that women’s basketball can be that pathway, simply because we are an underserved audience, and those just getting into the game are searching for more of it anywhere they can find it.

We saw a similar reckoning with the U.S. Women’s National Team in soccer back in 2015, and both those media companies and the NWSL itself promptly missed the chance to capitalize on it. The WNBA, fortunately, is tuned into this opportunity, both because Cathy Engelbert, thank goodness, is not Jeff Plush, and because the chronology of events is working directly in the league’s favor. Here come Clark and Cameron Brink and Angel Reese into the WNBA Draft, just as the league is negotiating its new media rights deal.

(Plush, by the way, had no media rights deal at all, and ended up streaming most of the 2015 games on YouTube, the streams very occasionally lasting an entire 90 minutes without crashing. Jessica Berman, fortunately, is no Jeff Plush, either.)

But there are some useful guidelines to keep in mind among fans, media and teams/leagues alike. Those who are already here cannot be ignored. It is the basis for the growth we’ve already seen, the folks who helped seed the ground for this moment. But those already here, too, cannot act like Jack Black in High Fidelity and gatekeep, even in the face of ignorance spewed by newcomers. Without newcomers, the space doesn’t grow!

I was interviewed for a television spot this afternoon, and the premise of the question began from the talking point that players moving from the NCAA to the WNBA were losing money by doing so — a laughable idea for many reasons, not least of which because of the excellent representation of the biggest stars doing this would never allow it — and so I gently pushed back on this premise and explained how national advertisers don’t particularly care about the wins and losses of, say, LSU, while in Clark’s case, she doesn’t even earn money from the Iowa NIL collective.

This is what we must do. We must welcome and inform. It is not time to shame people for how long they’ve taken to get here. They’re here now. Their presence makes this game bigger, more lucrative for those playing it, more sustainable for everyone.

Juliet, for the record, has this approach down perfectly. She didn’t try to ridicule the boys in her class who reiterated that they don’t watch women’s basketball, but couldn’t stop talking about how great Caitlin Clark was. She didn’t even do so when some of them admitted that they stayed up late and watched UConn-USC, and future WNBA stars Paige Bueckers and JuJu Watkins as well.

She just smiled at them and told them she’d enjoyed the games, too. And if they were interested? The next ones are on Friday night. Juliet and I will be there. If you are, too, drop us a line! We won’t be alone.

This week in women’s basketball

I mean, we had 198 reported stories in March at The Next, so start there.

Kim Mulkey is intense and complicated. Not really lawsuit material, eh?

Don’t sleep on Jaz Shelley’s legacy at Nebraska.

Sally Jenkins on the errors during the NCAA Tournament.

Dre’Una Edwards got the happy ending she deserved.

A Folkl hero!

Angel Reese coverage in Vogue, in case you were wondering how marketable she’ll be as she turns pro.

Five at The IX: Angel Reese

Please listen to Angel and think about her words the next time you speak about her.

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Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Howard Megdal

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