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Caitlin Clark: The Right Place, the Right Time, the Right Impact

Caitlin Clark’s selection as the first pick in the WNBA draft was predictable, yet it held profound significance. It came at a critical juncture for women's basketball—a moment when her skills, timing, and the spotlight intersected, potentially shifting the narrative of a sport historically overshadowed by its male counterpart.

The Challenge of Sustaining Interest

Despite Caitlin Clark's undeniable prowess during her NCAA tenure, there's a broader challenge: Can her entry into the WNBA translate collegiate viewership success to the professional level? Historically, the WNBA has faced lower viewership compared to men's basketball and other major sports leagues. The skepticism lingers: Can one player turn the tide for an entire league? This scenario is eerily reminiscent of when Michael Jordan left the NBA. "Who is the next Michael Jordan?" became an enduring narrative, and while the NBA experienced a temporary setback, it ultimately recovered and thrived with excellent leadership, marketing, international game expansion and the next generation of stars.

Timing is Everything

Daryl Morey’s epiphany to use a weighted average in shot percentage, emphasizing the three-pointer over the two-pointer, stretched the game and highlighted perimeter shooting. Both men's and women's basketball evolved from a two-post setup to an emphasis on perimeter-oriented offenses, inspiring coaches at all levels to develop players in a four-out and five-out set. Size remains valuable, but skill, especially the ability to sink deep threes and find open players, is now paramount. Enter Caitlin Clark.  Like Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry before her in the men’s game, Clark possesses these skill sets in abundance and has uniquely positioned herself to captivate audiences.

A New Era in Broadcasting Rights

The end of Clark’s NCAA career coincided with the NCAA's decision to bundle women’s basketball broadcasting rights with other sports, rather than negotiating women’s basketball as a standalone. Did the uncertainty of the future of the college game without Clark, Reese, and the story lines from their brightest stars sway the negotiations?  Will Paige Bueckers, JuJu Watkins, and the remaining players be able to captivate the national interest in the same way as Caitlin Clark did?  Time will tell, but it is fascinating that this is a debate on the national level and bodes well for the women’s game in general. 

The $100 Million Question

The WNBA is on the cusp of a pivotal moment, with media deals up for renegotiation at the end of the 2024-2025 season. Can the league set the right stage and strategically position itself to leverage what Clark, Reese, and their draft class achieved in the NCAA? The outcome of these negotiations will depend on whether the league can maintain or even boost its viewership, heavily influenced by the public's interest in players like Clark. Talent alone does not guarantee economic success; public engagement and narrative are equally critical. Clark’s presence could be instrumental in these discussions.

A Shared Load and a Shared Legacy

During the press conference following the national championship, Dawn Staley stated, "I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport. She carried a heavy load for our sport. And it’s just not going to stop with a collegiate tour but will continue as she’s the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. She’s going to lift that league up as well." Staley praised Clark, positioning her as one of the greatest of all time in women's basketball. Clark carries a heavy burden, but it’s a shared load, akin to the role of a lead actor in a blockbuster movie. If the supporting cast, co-leads, production teams, and every other part of this 'new movie' play their parts well, then maybe—just maybe—the movie that is women's professional basketball can capitalize on this moment, much like the NBA did decades ago with young stars named Larry, Earvin, and Michael.

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