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  • Writer's pictureBruin Sports Analytics

Taking Center Stage: How Caitlin Clark Propelled Women’s College Basketball into the Spotlight

By: Taylor Fenton, Aahil Ali, Ethan Diana


Source: The Sporting News

Introduction:


On April 7th, for the first time in NCAA history, more fans tuned in to watch the Women’s March Madness championship game than the Men’s March Madness game the following day. The record breaking game, in which the South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes 87-75 to remain undefeated, followed on the heels of a long string of records broken in women’s college basketball this season. Many of those records include games attracting unprecedented numbers of audience members. 


This immense increase in interest in women’s college basketball has many potential factors. The impact of star players like Cailtin Clark, who became the all time D1 men’s and women’s career leading scorer and the all time NCAA single season record holder for 3 pointers, among other honors, is certainly a key component in the growth experienced by the sport. Additionally, dominant teams like the University of South Carolina, notorious coaches like Kim Mulkey, and other popular star players like Paige Bueckers, JuJu Watkins, Cameron Brink, and Angel Reese have also played a role.


The frenzy surrounding women’s college basketball ushers in a very exciting time for women’s sports. This leads to the question: How has the rise of star players like Caitlin Clark contributed to the growth of women’s college basketball? And, for the future of the sport, will this trend continue in the WNBA? In the NCAAW next year after Clark is drafted?


We define the following term:

  • Growth - increases in viewership, ticket sales, social media engagement, NIL, etc


Throughout the article, we will analyze the percentage increase in viewership for the 2024 Women’s March Madness tournament in comparison to viewership from 2014-2023. Through a variety of visualizations, we will dive into trends in the sport over the past decade in relation to the impact of key players like Caitlin Clark.


Analysis:


The following graph illustrates the points per game of two of these key players – Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers – from the 2020-21 season through the 2023-24 season, alongside the viewership numbers for the National Championship game during these years. It seems their dominance on the court correlates with a significant rise in viewership for the National Championship games, suggesting their performances have played a crucial role in drawing more viewers to the sport. The trendline for National Championship viewership indicates a strong positive correlation between the number of viewers as the years went by (R^2 = 0.878), and suggests that the increase in viewership was likely influenced by consistent factors such as the performance of star players. As Clark and Bueckers’ points per game increased, it seems so did the interest in women's college basketball. 



The following stacked bar chart displays this same growth in interest, illustrating the growth in the percentage of the stadium filled in relation to the stadium capacity for Iowa, LSU, and the University of South Carolina’s (UofSC) women’s college basketball games during the past three regular seasons. The 2020-21 season was omitted from this analysis due to the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacting attendance figures. Over the 3 seasons, there is a significant upward trend in attendance, with the most noticeable jump occurring from the 2022-23 to 2023-24 seasons after the explosion in star player performances during the 2022-23 NCAA Tournament. Iowa particularly saw unbelievable growth in attendance, going from 54.62% average attendance compared to their stadium’s capacity in 2021-22, to 99.5% in the most recent season (with a significant 25.49% increase after their first national championship berth, and selling out or breaking an attendance record in 30 of 32 of their regular season games the following season). LSU and the University of South Carolina saw their biggest jumps after the 2022-23 NCAA Tournament as well, with 21.9% and 17.36% jumps in attendance in the following season as well. The performances of stars such as Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese in this particular tournament seem to have contributed to a 24.14% increase in attendance at worst (UofSC) and an incredible 34.44% at best (Iowa) in the following 2023-24 season.



The 2024 WNBA Draft audience was the largest the league has seen for a broadcast of any kind in more than two decades - beating the 2023 draft viewership by 328%. The league's 36 million total unique viewers across all national networks in 2023 was the highest figure since 2008 and a 27% increase from the previous year, while average regular-season viewership across major networks was 505,000. It is projected that the WNBA’s viewership will hit upward of 50 million total unique viewers across all national networks. This is a testament to the growth of the sport and fan investment in players like Clark. The 2024 WNBA draft was the largest TV audience for a WNBA telecast—of any kind—since a New York Liberty vs. Houston Comets game on NBC drew 2.74 million in 2000. Over the subsequent quarter of a century, no WNBA telecasts, including playoff and final games, have cracked the 1 million viewer mark.



The 2023 NCAA March Madness tournament was filled with household names on the women's side, including Iowa's Caitlin Clark, LSU's Angel Reese and USC's JuJu Watkins. The public was very receptive to the starpower of women's basketball and this showed in the ticket prices. The average ticket resale prices for the women's Final Four leaped from $214 in 2022 to $416 in 2023; in contrast, resale prices for the men’s Final Four dropped from $806 in 2022 to $423 in 2023. The cheapest women's championship game ticket was 61% more expensive, at $296, than the men's, at $184. In 2024, these numbers skyrocketed, with the average price of a ticket sold to the women’s semifinals being $2,323; the average sale price for the men’s was $1,001.21.



The graph below compares the average points scored by the leading scorer in NCAAW basketball with the points scored by the highest scorer in the National Championship. Both of these values are measured from 2014-2024. Over the past 11 seasons, the average points per game of the leading scorer in NCAAW basketball is 28.6 points with a standard deviation of 2.5 points. The average points scored by the highest scorer in the National Championship over the past 10 seasons (excluding 2020) was 24.3 points with a standard deviation of 4.8 points. Clark was the league leading scorer in the 2021, 2022, and 2024 seasons, averaging 26.6, 27, and 31.6 points respectively. She was also the highest scorer in both National Championship games she played in despite her team losing, scoring 30 in both 2023 and 2024.



The following graph shows the total viewership numbers for the NCAAW’s basketball National Championship

from 2014-2024. This number has steadily increased starting in 2018, with 3.566 million fans tuning in for the 2018 game and over 18.867 million viewers watching USC vs Iowa in the 2024 season. The 2023 championship attracted 204.26% more viewers than the previous year, with the 2024 championship drawing 190.28% more viewers than the 2023 championship. Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes competed in the 2023 and 2024 National Championships. This audience trendline can be modeled by the exponential equation

y = 5.81e^0.8+863514x + 0.0707x^3. With an R^2 value of 0.951, this equation is a very strong fit.



Conclusion:


Viewership trends depict massive growth in the interest surrounding women’s college basketball over the previous several years. This dramatic increase in viewership can be largely attributed to the impact of star players like Caitlin Clark, with their exceptional on-court performances drawing in audiences to watch them break records. With games becoming more competitive and more exciting, fans have become more and more likely to tune in. As many of these players transition to the WNBA, the growth in viewership and engagement are anticipated to continue – with the increasingly marketed and media-covered stars further elevating the status and popularity of women’s basketball, and women’s sports, as a whole. 



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