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For women's basketball, Caitlin Clark's lasting impact could be economic

Caitlin Clark, the University of Iowa basketball player who dazzled crowds with her deep shooting range and preternatural scoring ability, is one of the biggest draws in sports.

Tickets for its games this season were nearly 200% more expensive than last year, according to Vivid Seats, a ticket exchange and resale company. Fans regularly traveled hundreds of miles to catch a glimpse, queuing for hours before the announcement and boosting local economies.

Nearly 10 million people, a record, watched her play in last year's championship game, a loss to Louisiana State. More than three million people tuned in this year when she set the career record for points scored by a Division I college basketball player.

Now, as Ms. Clark prepares for her final NCAA tournament — No. 1 seed Iowa plays its first game Saturday — the excitement has reached a fever pitch. One wonders if Ms. Clark's effect on the popularity and economics of women's sports will persist after her career at Iowa ends.

Viewership, fueled by media rights deals, and corporate sponsorships are the primary revenue drivers of college and professional sports. In women's sports, they have long lagged behind what men's sports receive. In 2019, for example, women's sports programming accounted for less than 6% of coverage on ESPN's “SportsCenter,” according to one report. study.

But in recent years, women's sport has seen significant growth. A November report of Deloitte projects that women's sports would generate more than $1 billion in global revenue this year, an increase of approximately 300% over the company's estimates in 2021. Globally, the number of sponsorships in women's professional leagues increased by 22% in 2023, up from 24%. increase in men's sports, according to SponsorUnited, which tracks corporate sponsorships and deals.

“You need women like Caitlin Clark who are so great you can't miss them,” said Michael Pachter, a technology analyst at Wedbush Securities.

Stars play sports. The 1979 men's national title game between Magic Johnson's Michigan State and Larry Bird's Indiana State remains the most-watched college basketball game of all time. Both stars then entered the National Basketball Association, making the league more popular than it ever was.

Before the Johnson-Bird NBA era, the league finals were broadcast on tape delay. Today, the NBA makes billions of dollars from its television contracts, and star players earn more than $60 million per season.

And as TV networks try to give viewers reasons to tune in in the streaming era, broadcast rights to popular men's sports, like football, hockey and basketball, have become expensive. That has prompted networks to strike deals to broadcast sports, like women's basketball, that don't cost as much and whose viewership is expected to grow.

“The networks are facing an economic problem because they are paying too much for the sports they need to fill their network space,” said Andrew Barrett, a managing director at STS Capital Partners who works in sports management. “You start getting interested in women’s sports because people will watch them.”

In January, the NCAA signed a deal with ESPN that valued annual rights to broadcast the women's basketball tournament at more than $60 million, more than 10 times what the network paid in the previous deal. , in 2011.

The network pays between $25 million and $33 million a year to broadcast some Women's National Basketball Association games, while Scripps reportedly paid $13 million per year. The WNBA's previous deal, solely with ESPN, was signed in 2013 for $12 million per year, according to Sports Affairs Journal. Annual revenue nearly doubled from $100 million in 2019 to around $200 million in 2023, according to Bloomberg.

“We are not a charity,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said during a recent roundtable with law firm Kramer Levin. “We are a true sports media and entertainment property.”

When Ms. Clark announced she would forgo her final year of college eligibility to enter this spring's WNBA draft, it had an immediate effect. The Indiana Fever, which is expected to select it first overall in April, saw a more than 200 percent increase in average list price for its season opener, according to Vivid Seats.

Ms. Clark's success follows decades of progress for women in sports, dating back to the 1972 passage of Title IX, which banned sex discrimination in educational institutions and led to a rise soaring funding and participation in women's sports. The World Cup won by the U.S. women's soccer team in 1999 sparked interest and investment among young people. Serena Williams changed the tennis audience, and athletes like race car driver Danica Patrick and fighter Ronda Rousey attracted new viewers to their sports.

Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, said Ms. Clark's success was “another event in a long line of events” that increased acceptance of all women's sports.

“There has been positive development since the passage of Title IX in 1972,” Mr. Zimbalist said.

Unlike previous generations, Ms. Clark was able to immediately reap the rewards of her fame thanks to a 2021 NCAA rule change that allows college athletes to profit off their own name, image and likeness, including through product promotion and sponsorship agreements. Ms Clark's sponsorship deals – valued at $3 million, according to The 3, a site that tracks NIL transactions, meaning she makes more than most WNBA players. (His projected base salary for his rookie season is $76,000.)

Ms. Clark is not the first female basketball star to attract intense interest. The WNBA was founded largely due to the popularity of women's college basketball. Historic programs like the University of Tennessee and the University of Connecticut have collected multiple championships and featured stars like Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw, Candace Parker, Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.

But progress has come in fits and starts. In 1997, the WNBA's inaugural season, average attendance was around 10,000. Three years later, the league expanded to 16 teams. In 2023, there were only 12 teams and the average attendance was less than 7,000 people. The 2023 finals averaged 728,000 viewers, an improvement over 2022 but fewer than the 2003 finals, which were watched by 848,000 on average.

Mr. Pachter said he didn't think the audience for women's basketball would reach hundreds of millions overnight. But he sees interest continuing to grow steadily and can envision a future in which a streaming service might attempt to hold exclusive rights to a league like the WNBA. For that to happen, other stars need to get on Ms. Clark's level.

“You need three or four more, but they’re coming,” Mr. Pachter said. “They will emerge because now we are paying attention to them.”

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