‘Rivalries & household names’: How Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark can help Fever, WNBA fandom

INDIANAPOLIS — When Caitlin Clark and the Iowa women’s basketball team traveled to Bloomington for a top-15 matchup earlier this month, Indiana fans were ready.

Caitlin Clark: How Iowa star can help the Indiana Fever, WNBA fandom

Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall had been sold out for weeks — a rematch after Iowa took a victory in Iowa City in January — and lines stretched over half a mile to get into the arena more than three hours before tipoff. Inside, there were signs that showed love for Clark and admonished her, as well as some dishing out hope that she would come to the Indiana Fever.

The environment, in all aspects of the word, was extremely hostile once the game started. Clark garnered the largest boos of the night in opening lineups, and as IU built its lead over Iowa in the second half, the crowd became more hostile to Clark and her teammates, culminating in an ears-ringing experience and a 20-point IU victory.

More:‘Our backs are against the wall.’ Win over Iowa puts IU back in national seed picture.

But Clark, despite her frustrations with the loss, didn’t have anything bad to say about the environment. Instead, she loved it.

“This is a great environment to come and play basketball,” Clark said postgame. “Their crowd is incredible. It’s fun to play basketball here.”

‘We’ve got our fingers crossed’:Indiana Fever fans await Caitlin Clark’s draft decision

The rivalry between Iowa and IU has ratcheted up in the last few years, with each game usually seeing the teams go toe-to-toe — other than this season, which were two blowouts on their respective home floors.

It’s something that’s grown in women’s basketball in the past few years: rivalries that will back the house full of 17,000 people. Those types of rivalries are growing all across the women’s college basketball scene: USC-UCLA, LSU-South Carolina, and UConn-South Carolina.

It’s exactly what WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert hopes will transfer to the league once Clark — and other top college players — come to the WNBA. Really, it reminded her of an Indiana legend.

“I knew when I came into the league we needed to build rivalries and household names,” Engelbert said. “Caitlin represents that, and some of the other college players represent the building of rivalries at the college level. Remember what happened in the 80s when a big rivalry came out of college? That was called Magic Johnson and Larry Bird … and it was incredible how that rivalry then really put the NBA on top. We’re excited for that type of momentum to come into the W and play at the professional level.”

Right now, Clark is the biggest household name in women’s college basketball — and possibly the basketball world as a whole. She was mentioned multiple times during the NBA’s All-Star weekend, including as a possible competitor to Steph Curry after the Steph vs. Sabrina 3-point contest. She’s appearing in State Farm commercials all over the nation, has an NIL deal with Nike, and has had her picture in New York City’s Times Square multiple times.

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She propelled Iowa to its first Final Four appearance in 40 years in 2023. This season, Carver-Hawkeye Arena saw a record number of season-ticket requests for women’s basketball, selling out their home floor for every single game. On the road, Clark and the Hawkeyes have set new attendance records and soldiout crowds in all but two arenas (during an early-season tournament in Florida).

“I think she’s created just a lot of bandwagon Iowa fans,” WNBA Chief Marketing Officer Phil Cook said. “I don’t think this fandom existed four years ago, I think there was a devout fandom to all things Iowa by, you know, Hawkeye alums. But Caitlin comes along and attracts a much broader eye than just Hawk alums, right, I think the basketball purist, I think people who just love excellence in sport.”

Whenever Clark decides to go to the WNBA, whether it’s in 2024 or ’25, she will likely take her national sponsorship deals with her — essentially making the WNBA rookie salary of around $75,000 a non-factor in whether she stays or goes. Under the WNBA’s current collective bargaining agreement, Clark will make up to about $250,000 on a supermax deal, which she will be eligible for after five years in the league.

Clark’s generational talent and influence throughout the country will transfer over to the WNBA, along with the influence of other players like Paige Bueckers, Angel Reese, and Cameron Brink.

More:With popular draft class coming in 2024, WNBA utilizes NBA All-Star weekend for new marketing strategy

“I’ve been watching her for a couple years now,” Engelbert said. “What she’s bringing, the excitement, attention — it’s really, you know, also an outcome of followership of a lot of these athletes. Whether it’s Angel Reese, Haley Van Lith, Cameron Brink, you know, Paige Bueckers, Caitlin, they have an opportunity to come into the league, the first class to come into the league with a huge scholarship because of NIL, because of broader media coverage.”

The ultra-popular women’s basketball players coming into the draft, whether it’s because of NIL or broader media coverage, is just one aspect of how the WNBA is growing more and more popular, Engelbert said.

Multiple things in the past couple years have helped the WNBA grow — the league’s newest CBA allowed for a true free agency period, which led to the superteam era with the New York Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces. Increased individual popularity of players like A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart is also helping, as well as the league’s planned expansion.

“It’s kind of this confluence of all these things,” Engelbert said. “I call it the perfect storm, but it’s like a positive perfect storm. Of all these great things going on, it’s driving more corporate partners to step up, more valuation, whether it’s a patch on the uniform, a placement record, a media ad buy, a media right, a franchise value, all of that is an outcome of that confluence of all positivity and generational players coming in.”

These budding rivalries are bringing more emotion, from both the fans and the players, into the game — something that the league can market.

“The WNBA has evolved over the last few years out of this collective of 144 into this, you know, 12 groups of 12 who are fighting for a championship and, and it’s real and it’s physical, and it’s emotional,” Cook said. “…  Why we love and hate the Yankees and the Red Sox, and Duke basketball and the Dallas Cowboys, we’re starting to get some of that emotion into fans of the WNBA.”


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