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A woman basketball player dribbles the ball past two other women players from an opposing team
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives past West Virginia guard JJ Quinerly (11) in a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, on March 25, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

March Madness: The stars of women’s NCAA basketball face high expectations as the sport grows

Women’s basketball superstars are standing at a crossroads for collegiate basketball, professional women’s sport, and the relationship between race and gender more broadly.

Last year’s NCAA women’s basketball championship between Louisiana State University and the University of Iowa saw controversy arise when LSU’s Angel Reese made a hand gesture that many perceived as rude toward Iowa player Caitlin Clark.

Reese, a Black woman, received immediate misogynoiristic backlash online for the gesture, despite Clark having made a similar gesture earlier in the game.

The situation placed undue, uninvited stress and attention on both Reese and Clark and evoked the long history of racially-coded conflicts across sport. It prompted fans and critics to consider the social roles traditionally given to white and Black athletes and how these persisting expectations continue to inform broader perceptions of individual athletes.

As this year’s NCAA tournament unfolds, it might yet again represent a new high water-mark for women’s sport as new standards are set for ratings and even more pressure falls on the game’s superstars.

The rise of women’s NCAA basketball

The increasing interest in collegiate women’s basketball has become impossible to ignore, buoyed in large part by the emergence of stars like Clark, Reese, University of Southern California freshman guard JuJu Watkins and University of Utah senior forward Alissa Pili.

The 2023 NCAA women’s basketball tournament averaged 6.5 million viewers for the two final four games and 9.9 million for the championship game. By comparison, the 2023 NHL Stanley Cup averaged 2.6 million viewers in the United States, 4.6 million in 2022 and 2.5 million in 2021.

A young woman in a basketball uniform signs autographs for a group of young girls
Southern California guard JuJu Watkins signs autographs for fans after a 73-55 win over Kansas in a college basketball game in the women’s NCAA Tournament in Los Angeles, on March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

NCAA men’s basketball, in comparison, has experienced a decline over the years because of its relationship to the NBA draft. Beginning in 2006, the NBA mandated players must be at least one-year removed from high school graduation and 19 years old to be eligible for the draft. Prior to 2006, players were eligible to enter the draft directly out of high school.

The ability to enter the NBA at 18 was a privilege only granted after a 1967 Supreme Court decision allowed University of Detroit forward Spencer Haywood to sign an NBA contract despite the league’s requirement that players not be drafted until four years after high school graduation.

As author Chuck Klosterman mentioned in an interview, players used to stay in school for three or four years, allowing audiences to become fans by watching players evolve. Now, the NBA sees players drafted after spending only months on college campuses, which has led to an erosion of interest in men’s collegiate basketball.

It is possible this sense of disconnection has drawn larger audiences to the women’s collegiate game, where fans are able to develop more long-lasting relationships with players and witness intense rivalries between teams due to a greater continuity of talent.

The changing faces of women’s basketball

Described as a “transformational talent,” “the supernova driving women’s basketball to new heights” and inspiring what is known as the “Caitlin Clark Effect,” Clark is now a household name across North America.

Her influence is a strong, positive experience that disrupts traditional gender marginalization and stereotypes within collegiate sports. Clark’s accomplishments directly challenge the stereotype that female athletes are less athletic than male athletes.

This is a harmful and historical trope for a host of reasons, one of which is that it subjugates women as inferior athletes and undermines efforts to break down the patriarchal barriers that have traditionally disenfranchised female athletics as a whole.

Within her role as a student athlete ambassador, Clark is also able to disrupt traditional views around femininity in sports. Her identity as a white woman and her wealth also matter tremendously.

Because whiteness is still privileged and treated as the normative identity in collegiate athletics across America, Clark is well-positioned to disrupt traditional ideas around femininity in a way that a non-white athlete cannot.

Wealth in women’s sports

The lucrative landscape surrounding NIL (name, image, likeness) regulations means the stars of NCAA women’s basketball stand to earn far more than previous generations of women’s players. NIL rules allow players to monetize their name, image and likeness through sponsorships and other activities.

There is speculation Clark will declare for the WNBA’s 2024 season, where she is highly touted to be the number one overall draft pick. It is reported that Clark’s 11 NIL contracts are worth a combined US$3 million — a number that stands in stark contrast to the usual $100,000 rookie salary of top WNBA first round picks.

A young Black woman dribbles a basketball down a court while a crown watches on
LSU forward Angel Reese dribbles during a basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 22, 2024, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

But this opportunity has the potential to create a great deal more pressure for those carrying the banner for women’s basketball. It’s new and uncharted territory for female collegiate athletes and foreshadows possible tensions for athletes who eventually transition to professional basketball.

The younger generation of stars may well enter into the WNBA with more wealth amassed over their collegiate careers than some long-standing WNBA players have ever made.

Clark, Reese and a new generation of collegiate superstars are now not only tasked with navigating their place in an inequitable sporting marketplace, but are also pioneers of a new age of wealth in women’s sport.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, so the saying goes, and Clark appears to bear that weight deftly. However, as a new generation of players transitions into the professional game from a collegiate game they’ve helped supercharge, it’s important to consider how much weight is reasonable for any athlete to bear, no matter how battle-tested and celebrated the player.

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