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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

South Carolina and Iowa prove if ‘given an opportunity, women’s sports just thrives’

Caitlin Clark of Iowa signs items for fans after her team’s victory over Wisconsin in Iowa City, Iowa, on Jan. 16, 2024. After the University of South Carolina beat Iowa 87-75 to win the NCAA Division I women’s national basketball championship last Sunday, Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley purposely turned the spotlight back to the person who was central in helping to make this a transformative season and inflection point in the game’s evolution: Clark. (Hilary Swift/The New York Times)

By Jim Trotter / The Athletic

Everyone wanted to talk about the game, which was expected after the South Carolina women’s basketball team held off Iowa for an 87-75 victory and second national championship in three years.

But coach Dawn Staley also wanted to talk about the other game.

Basketball has played such an important role in Staley’s life that she protects it as fiercely as a mother would a newborn. Her love for it is matched only by her respect for it. So even as she was asked about the Gamecocks’ becoming just the 10th team in NCAA Division I history to finish a season undefeated, going 38-0, Staley purposely turned the spotlight back to the person who was central in helping to make this a transformative season and inflection point in the game’s evolution: Caitlin Clark.

“I don’t want to not utilize this opportunity to thank Caitlin for what she’s done for women’s basketball,” she said of the Iowa guard whose transcendent play helped drive record viewership numbers. “Her shoulders were heavy, and getting a lot of eyeballs on our game. And sometimes as a young person, it can be a bit much. But I thought she handled it with class. I hope that every step of the ladder of success that she goes, she’s able to elevate whatever room she’s in.”

Minutes earlier, Staley had elevated herself to the upper rungs of a ladder in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland. She snipped the final polyester strands from the net and placed it around her neck. Then she turned each way and waved to fans.

As I later listened to Staley describe her feelings, Maya Angelou’s words came to mind: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

That summarizes the 2023-24 women’s basketball season for me. Years from now, I will probably forget Clark’s career points total, how many games South Carolina won and which players were involved in the moving screen at the end of the UConn-Iowa national semifinal. But I will never forget the sense of satisfaction derived from seeing the sport come of age.

For decades, broadcast partners and the public marginalized women’s basketball, ostensibly relegating it to the kids’ table. The calls for respect were heard but ignored. But this season was different. The women no longer asked for respect; they demanded it with the record-breaking viewership that stemmed from the genius of Clark; the high-level play of South Carolina, Iowa, UConn, LSU and others; and the story lines and grudge matches that set social media ablaze.

How far has the game come? When the women’s Final Four was held in Tacoma, Washington, in 1988 and ’89, the local newspaper didn’t send any of its top sportswriters to cover it. It sent a lowly community news reporter who had never staffed a major sporting event. I know because that person was me.

I was stunned there wasn’t more interest after experiencing the intensity of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, the playmaking of Long Beach State guard Penny Toler, the generalship of Stanford guard Jennifer Azzi, the consistency of Tennessee forward Bridgette Gordon, and the promise of Louisiana Tech center Venus Lacy. But traction is hard to come by when broadcast rights are sold to a cable outlet that views you as an afterthought.

ESPN should be ashamed for that. The fact is, the network is not deserving of what it now has — one of the hottest products in sports. Sunday’s final averaged 18.7 million viewers and peaked at 24.7 million, according to ESPN. It was the most watched basketball game, including college and the NBA, since 2019, and the most watched women’s college basketball game ever.

The women’s game this year attracted more viewers than the NBA Finals and the World Series. And though there might be a drop-off after Clark leaves, the chances of a significant decline seem remote at best.

The reason is the abundance of elite teams and playmaking young stars, including Southern California freshman JuJu Watkins, who ranked second in the country in scoring; Notre Dame freshman Hannah Hidalgo, who was must-see TV; and South Carolina freshmen MiLaysia Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson, who just played prominent roles in giving the Gamecocks their third national title overall. And then there is senior guard Paige Bueckers, who led Connecticut to the Final Four and should be in the running for national player of the year next season.

“I just want our game to grow. I don’t care if it’s us. I don’t care if it’s Caitlin. I don’t care if it’s JuJu or Hannah,” Staley said.

There will be plenty of time to discuss the passing of the baton. But Sunday was about recognizing those who unquestionably built on the momentum created in recent seasons. And Clark was at the front of the line.

Before disappearing from the dais for the final time as a college player, she reflected on the things she will remember and appreciate most: her teammates, her coaches, and her support inside and outside the program. And she will also take great pride and satisfaction that she played a part in making the women’s game top of mind.

“When I think about women’s basketball going forward, obviously it’s just going to continue to grow, whether it’s at the WNBA level, whether it’s at the college level,” Clark said. “Everybody sees it. Everybody knows. Everybody sees the viewership numbers. When you’re given an opportunity, women’s sports just kind of thrives.”

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