‘Makes the young ones believe’: Iowa women’s basketball guard Caitlin Clark’s immeasurable impact on women’s sports

The 2023 NCAA title game featuring the National Player of the Year in April drew a record-setting 9.9 million viewers on ABC.
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark signs autographs during a welcome home event for the Iowa women’s basketball team’s NCAA national championship runner-up finish outside of Hyatt Regency Hotel in Coralville on Monday, April 3, 2023. The Hawkeyes were welcomed home by hundreds of fans following a loss to LSU in the title game.
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark signs autographs during a welcome home event for the Iowa women’s basketball team’s NCAA national championship runner-up finish outside of Hyatt Regency Hotel in Coralville on Monday, April 3, 2023. The Hawkeyes were welcomed home by hundreds of fans following a loss to LSU in the title game.
Ayrton Breckenridge

The 2023 national runner-up Iowa women’s basketball team can’t go anywhere without getting recognized.

The title game featuring Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Louisiana State University’s Angel Reese in April averaged a record-setting 9.9 million viewers across ABC and ESPN.

Across state lines, Nebraska volleyball set an all-time attendance record for a women’s sporting event when 92,003 people dressed in red packed into Memorial Stadium on Aug. 31 to watch the Huskers defeat the Omaha Mavericks in three straight sets.

And on Oct. 15, Clark and Co. will set the all-time attendance record for a women’s basketball game as nearly 50,000 tickets have been purchased for Crossover at Kinnick, an exhibition game between the Hawkeyes and the DePaul Blue Demons.

Such national attention was unheard of across women’s sports just a couple of years ago.

“I want my legacy to be the impact I have on young kids and the people of Iowa,” Clark said with tears in her eyes after the title game loss against LSU. “I was that young girl. All you have to do is dream, and you can be in moments like this.”

Title IX paves way for women in sports

Women in sports would not have the opportunities they do today without Christine Grant and her push for full implementation of Title IX, the federal legislation passed in 1972 that required equal opportunities for all in athletics and academics.

Grant earned her master’s degree in physical education from Iowa in 1970. Three years later, she was named the Hawkeyes’ first director of women’s intercollegiate athletics and remained in that position until she retired in August 2000. She also served as a consultant for the Civil Rights Title IX Task Force.

Grant hired Iowa women’s basketball head coach Lisa Bluder in April 2000. Grant died on Dec. 31, 2021, at 85 years old, but her impact on Bluder has been deep and long-lasting.

“She was my mentor — she was a role model for me,” Bluder said of Grant. “She taught me how to think in a different way. I’d always been aware of the inequalities, but she taught me to sit in a room and listen with a different ear set and listen for those subtle inequalities that people were talking about and have the courage to bring them to attention.”

Volleyball coaches, like Wisconsin’s Kelly Sheffield, have been fighting for more national exposure of the sport for over a decade.

This season, a record-setting 64 Big Ten volleyball matches will be televised nationally on Big Ten Network, FOX, FS1, and FS2. The FOX network is broadcasting its first-ever Big Ten volleyball matches on Oct. 29, featuring Ohio State at Michigan and Minnesota at Wisconsin.

ESPN and the NCAA announced on June 29 that the 2023 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship will be broadcast live on ABC for the first time on Dec. 17.

Nebraska’s match inside Memorial Stadium drew 518,000 viewers to Big Ten Network, the second most watched regular-season volleyball game ever across all networks.

Emily Ehman, a volleyball analyst for Big Ten Network, emphasized how important these events are for women’s sports, noting that they exceed the platform of general sports viewership into the viewership of the average person.

“It’s not just platforms like ESPN or Big Ten Network covering these events, it’s the New York Times, CNN, FOX, etc.,” Ehman wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. “Growing sports starts from the top, and events like these show what’s possible for women’s sports when they finally get the investment they deserve.”

The landmark event also caught Clark’s attention, who commented on Bleacher Report’s video of the Huskers walking out of the tunnel on X, formerly known as Twitter, and said “Sheesh” with a fire emoji. Her post ultimately garnered over 4,000 likes and 160 reposts.

The point guard said on Oct. 4 that she has always been a Nebraska volleyball fan and can’t imagine what it feels like to walk out to 90,000-plus fans screaming for you.

Nebraska head coach John Cook was visibly emotional throughout the event. Cook told media members following the historic match that he had “probably cried five times today.”

“That match in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, has to go down as one of the seismic, most important events in the history of the sport, not only in the United States but in the world,” Michael Calderon, Big Ten Network senior vice president for programming and digital media, told Volleyball Magazine.

Room for growth

Although Title IX was enacted over 50 years ago, much work still needs to be done.

The NCAA women’s basketball tournament wasn’t allowed to use March Madness marketing and branding until 2022, unlike the men’s national tournament that has used the term since 1939.

Things started changing when former Oregon forward Sedona Price voiced her concerns on TikTok about the disparity in weight room equipment and food between the men and women during the 2021 NCAA Tournament. There were also complaints about the difference in “swag bags,” as the women’s items paled in comparison to the men’s and were not branded with March Madness or The Big Dance.

Star NBA guard Steph Curry and Billie Jean King, arguably one of the best tennis players to date and a well-known gender equality advocate, joined the outrage on social media over the disparities.

The NCAA implemented changes for the 2022 women’s tournament following the outcry and has since seen positive results.

The 2022 women’s tournament averaged 634,000 viewers per game, a 16 percent increase from 2021, according to The Associated Press.

The title game between the Tigers and Hawkeyes peaked at 12.6 million viewers at one point during the contest. Iowa’s win over top-ranked and unbeaten South Carolina in the Final Four drew 5.5 million viewers, shattering the previous semifinal record of 3.23 million viewers for UConn against Stanford.

“Our game has grown tremendously just over the past few years, and it needed to because things weren’t equal,” Clark said.

Clark ‘makes the young ones believe’

Clark hasn’t just changed the game at the collegiate level.

High school and youth athletes imitate Clark while in the gym and at home in their driveway, shooting long-range 3-pointers and attempting no-look passes.

Her range and confidence from deep, as well as her court vision, is something the women’s game has arguably never seen.

Reagan Pagniano, a junior point guard and 2022 state basketball champion at Pleasant Valley High School, said she tries to push the tempo like Clark when she’s on the hardwood.

“Girls want to play like her,” Pagniano said. “I mean, she’s just so good. Like, I don’t know how to explain it. She just knows where everyone’s at. And she can teach me some pretty cool passes, too.”

Clark’s former coach at Dowling Catholic High School, Kristin Meyer, said she sees young girls and boys sporting the point guard’s gear around Des Moines and has even seen people throw Clark-themed birthday parties.

Meyer said Clark, who hails from West Des Moines, was happy to help with youth camps and skill sessions in high school. She said Clark has the same goofy personality now.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark poses for a photo with Marlee Willems, 10, during a charity event at the Coralville food pantry on Friday, April 21, 2023. “I picked her up early at school today.” Said Marlee’s mother, Maggie. “I said I have a surprise for you and said you’re going to meet someone.” Maggie asked Marlee. “Who would you like to meet the most in this world, and her response was Caitlin Clark.” (Daniel McGregor-Huyer)

“I don’t know if she necessarily had even an idea of the impact she could have. But she always kind of wanted that wow factor,” Meyer said. “When she stepped on the court, she wanted to play in a way that was fun for her. And for it to be fun for her, it had to be a challenge.”

While Clark’s been in Iowa City, she has tried to attend the youth basketball camps at Dowling each summer. This last summer, Clark couldn’t attend because she held her own youth camp, which sold out just a few hours after the sign-up link was posted, but she made sure to send a special video to Meyer to inspire the Dowling campers.

Meyer believes that Clark has had an impact on youth and high school girls’ basketball enrollment numbers. The head coach said she thinks Dowling will see the highest numbers it’s ever had for girl’s basketball this upcoming season.

“I think Caitlin has shown, especially female athletes, female basketball players, that they can do more than maybe most thought they could, whether it’s a more difficult move or a deeper shot,” Meyer said. “So, I think we’re going to see some changes in the game, just by her showing what’s possible and people trying to imitate her.”

Ashley Grimm, an assistant girls’ basketball coach at Cedar Rapids Prairie High School, alongside head coach and former Hawkeye basketball player Kenyon Murray, said she notices girls at the prep level taking more difficult and deeper shots thanks to Clark.

Grimm added that her fifth-grade daughter, Gi’a, instantly chose Clark as her favorite player when she watched the star compete for the Hawkeyes.

Clark, a three-time All-Big Ten and All-American selection, is just the second player in Big Ten women’s basketball history to have registered more than 2,000 points, 550 assists, 520 rebounds, 110 steals, and 40 blocks in a career.

“It’s just kind of like magic when you see Caitlin make almost what seem like impossible shots, and they sink right through,” Grimm said. “It just makes the young ones believe.”

Crossover at Kinnick

Not even two weeks after falling to LSU in the national championship, Bluder proposed the idea of hosting an exhibition game at Kinnick Stadium to Interim Athletic Director Beth Goetz.

Bluder remembered when Iowa wrestling hosted Grapple on the Gridiron in 2015, a dual meet between the Hawkeyes and Oklahoma State Cowboys at Kinnick that drew 42,287 spectators. She knew Iowa fans would show out the same way for her squad.

It didn’t take much convincing, if any at all, for Goetz to hop on the opportunity. All proceeds from the event will go to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

“When I went to our athletics director, Beth Goetz, she said yes without blinking, and all of our administration took on so much added work,” Bluder said. “This is an away football weekend, and it’s going to be treated like a football weekend almost.”

The current attendance record for a women’s basketball game is 29,619 fans and was set during the 2002 national championship game between UConn and Oklahoma. The Huskies went 39-0 that season with basketball legends Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, and Swin Cash all on the roster.

The Iowa women’s basketball team ranked second in attendance in the 2022 season, averaging 11,143 fans per game. This year, Clark and her teammates will play in front of a packed Carver-Hawkeye Arena every game, as season tickets sold out for the first time in program history.

In April, Iowa Athletics had to pause season ticket requests after receiving deposits for 6,700 new season tickets. Before selling out the 2023-24 season, the Iowa women had only sold out three regular season games.

Clark hopes to continue her and the Hawkeyes’ impact this season and keep giving people a reason to watch and get excited about women’s sports. She currently has 2717 career points— just 811 points from surpassing all-time leading scorer Kelsey Plum.

“I’ve always loved the game of basketball,” Meyer said. “But getting to be around Caitlin for four years in high school and now watching her play in college and her impact on the game has made me love the game even more. I’m just ‘so happy for her to have that impact and get to live out her dream every day.”

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