How basketball’s biggest star is changing women’s sport

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In recent months, the star power of one basketball player has sold out stadiums across the US, driven record television ratings and sparked countless conversations about a new era of fandom.

The record-shattering performance of Caitlin Clark, a 22-year-old senior and point guard at the University of Iowa, had brought a surge of interest in women’s college hoops that is driving media and sponsorship deals that outpace some men’s sports

Earlier this month, more than 3mn people tuned in to watch Clark break the all-time scoring record in college basketball — for men and women. It was better than the average network ratings for men’s professional National Basketball Association games this season. Last year’s national championship game between Iowa and Louisiana State University drew more viewers than baseball’s World Series.

As Clark leads the Hawkeyes towards a potential rematch with LSU this weekend in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, media and sponsorship around the game is heating up and underlining how women’s sport, from football to professional basketball and now the college game, is an important growth area for the wider industry.

Caitlin Clark signing autographs for fans
Caitlin Clark signs autographs for fans © Usa Today Sports/Reuters Con

Dan Gavitt, senior vice-president of basketball at the NCAA, said the value of women’s college basketball television broadcast rights has grown tenfold in just four years, from about $6mn in average annual value to $65mn this year. In January, the college sports governing body agreed a new eight-year, $920mn broadcast rights contract with Disney’s ESPN to air 40 championships from volleyball to water polo, anchored by the women’s basketball tournament.

The sport’s increasing value has been helped in recent years by higher scoring and tighter matches, said Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s vice-president of women’s basketball. “In the last five years we’ve seen a very significant change in competitive parity . . . four teams this season have averaged over 90 points per game, while last season no team averaged over 90 points per game,” she said. “If you love to watch sports, it’s a great thing.”

Clark stands above the rest of her competitors with all-time records in total points scored and points in a single season, and leads college women this season in assists. Nearly all of her games with Iowa have sold out this season, and she has built a sponsorship portfolio worth $3.1mn, including blue-chip brands Nike, Gatorade, Buick and State Farm insurance, according to On3, an industry tracker. 

So powerful is Clark’s appeal that the rapper Ice Cube offered her $5mn to join his nascent three-on-three basketball league, Big 3, this season, calling Clark “a generational athlete”. And executives at broadcaster Fox Sports discussed the possibility of offering her endorsement compensation in order to entice her to stay at Iowa for a fifth year next year, as reported by Puck. A spokeswoman for Fox did not comment. 

Clark has said that the 2024 season will be her last in the Hawkeyes uniform, as she intends to declare for the WNBA draft later this year.

She is far from the only personality generating interest in the women’s game. Angel Reese, forward for the defending national champion LSU Tigers, has a sponsorship portfolio worth $1.8mn, including deals with Goldman Sachs and Beats By Dre. The University of South Carolina women’s team, led by Kamilla Cardoso, is undefeated this year. 

Alyssa Ustby of the North Carolina Tar Heels, and Kamilla Cardoso of the South Carolina Gamecocks, during an NCAA game
Alyssa Ustby, left, of the North Carolina Tar Heels, and Kamilla Cardoso of the South Carolina Gamecocks, during an NCAA game © Getty Images

All three teams are set to compete this weekend in the third round of the NCAA tournament known as March Madness, the single-elimination, knockout-stage championship format played over six rounds. Ticket prices for this weekend’s games in Albany, New York, start at $230 and run up to $900, and a potential rematch between Iowa and LSU could happen Monday. The championship concludes April 7.

Despite the audience and sponsorship growth for women’s college basketball, some critics have said the sport should be worth more. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, also known as March Madness, generates $870mn in annual revenues from its broadcast agreements with Paramount’s CBS and Warner Brothers Discovery. The contracts are set to increase to more than $1bn annually beginning in 2026, according to NCAA financial statements.

In 2021, after allegations of vast resource disparities between the men’s and women’s NCAA championships were revealed by athletes on social media, a third-party gender equity review overseen by the law firm Kaplan, Hecker and Fink suggested the women’s basketball championship alone could be worth $81mn to $112mn per year.

The report recommended that the tournament be combined with the men’s college championship and move the women’s final to primetime, rather than its current slot in the afternoon.

Endeavor, which was retained as media rights consultant by the NCAA for the newest broadcast deal, said that it supported the broader remit towards gender equity but took issue with the specific media valuations, which it said were not developed with full insight into the existing NCAA-ESPN agreement.

Instead, Endeavor executive vice-president Hillary Mandel said that the recent success of the women’s game showed that linear and cable television could still be growth markets for live sports in an age when a move to subscription streaming seems inevitable.

“Distribution has never been more important than it is now in a fractured marketplace,” Mandel said. “The NCAA deal [with women’s basketball] proves that when the property performs, when it fulfils the needs of a partner, they will pay.”


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