Wherever Iowa basketball phenom Caitlin Clark goes, a crowd follows. All seven of Iowa's home games this season have attracted a sold-out crowd of 14,998.
When she goes on the road, demand for tickets surges. When Clark's Iowa Hawkeyes travel to Rutgers Friday night, another sold-out crowd will ensue.
The same will be true when the Hawkeyes visit Columbus on Jan. 21 to face Ohio State. For both games, resale tickets are selling for over $200.
And yet, watching Clark might actually be worth the price of admission. She is leading NCAA Division I women's basketball in scoring and assists. And she has a flair for drama.
On Tuesday, with the clock striking 0.0, Clark hit a desperation 3, lifting Iowa to a win over Big Ten foe Michigan State on national TV.
What is driving Clark's popularity
There have been great women's basketball players in the NCAA in the past. Names like Cheryl Miller, Brittney Griner, Angel Reese and Breanna Stewart might come to mind. But those players failed to draw the kind of buzz that Clark has generated.
One possible reason is women's basketball has always been popular at Iowa. In 2019-20, Iowa had the country's 10th-highest women's basketball attendance, drawing over 7,000 fans per game.
But last year's NCAA Tournament made Clark a household name. She had back-to-back 41-point performances in the Elite Eight and Final Four, which set up Iowa's clash with LSU in the national championship game.LSU's victory over Iowa drew a television audience of 9.9 million viewers, marking the most-viewed women’s college basketball game and ESPN platforms’ most-viewed college basketball game (men’s or women’s) on record.
As the run concluded, Jess Rickertsen's ticketing office at the University of Iowa fielded requests for season tickets. The demand became so great, his office had to cut off season ticket sales and declare the schedule sold out.
Clark's popularity has driven new fans to Iowa women's basketball games.
"Going back five, 10 years, it's fair to say our demographic of our season ticket holders was maybe a little bit older. We had a lot of retirees that just have always enjoyed coming to our games," he said. "They're very accessible. It's easy to park, it's easy to get into. It wasn't overly cost prohibitive. But here in the last couple of years, it's turned to almost like the demographic of our football team."
Rickertsen said he's seeing fans flock all over the U.S. to watch Clark. That was evident in October when Iowa hosted an outdoor exhibition game in the university's football venue, Kinnick Stadium. The outdoor game drew a crowd of over 55,000 fans. Rickertsen said of those who attended, 20,000 had never been to a University of Iowa sporting event.
And it's not just Clark's talent that draws in fans.
"I just hope people realize what she's done for the game," Rickertsen said. "How good of a person she is off the court. I mean, obviously, she's a competitor on the court, you know, and everybody would expect her to be. But I feel like her, her teammates, her coaches have always done the right thing off the court."
Clark's impact to women's sports
If nothing else, Clark has proved that women's athletics is marketable and potentially profitable. For major Division I universities, generally only the football and men's basketball programs can turn a profit. Women's basketball is commonly among the group of sports that have to be subsidized.
But times are changing.
On Thursday, ESPN and the NCAA announced an eight-year agreement to air Division I championships, including women's basketball. The Associated Press reported the deal is worth $920 million.
Women's athletics is something that Chris Knoester, professor of sociology at the Ohio State University, has studied.He recently released findings that showed more than half of U.S. adults consume at least one hour a week of women's sports content — whether it be by watching a game on TV or in person or viewing news coverage.
But he found plenty of room for growth as the amount of time people spend consuming women's sports pales in comparison to how much they view men's athletics.
"[Clark] is phenomenal, inspiring, captivating, remarkable to watch, and I think it's self-evident from the attendance and viewership numbers and really the buzz about her highlights and her performances that she's reflective of increased interest in and support of the dissemination of women's sports," Knoester said. "Certainly, that's wonderful to see and sure to inspire and encourage other people to care about and become more respectful and invested in women's sports."
One major example of this investment came from ESPN.
"I think the attention, the involvement, the amount of money that is now invested in at stake shows that there's a large and increasing market for girls and women's sports and the cultural status that Caitlin Clark has achieved is an example of that and suggests that she'll be an instigator of future growth," Knoester said.
Women's sports as a whole growing
There have been numerous other examples of women's sports growing. On Thursday, the National Women's Soccer League announced its salary cap for the upcoming season will be 25% higher than in 2023, largely thanks to a new television deal with Scripps, CBS and ESPN.
The WNBA's new TV deal with Scripps-owned television network ION helped increase last season’s total WNBA audience by 24%.
Earlier this week, the Professional Women's Hockey League began its debut season and already set the attendance record for a professional women's hockey game: 8,318 fans.
At the college ranks, the University of Nebraska broke women's volleyball attendance records when over 90,000 people were on hand for a match in Memorial Stadium in August.
Even another women's sport at Iowa is quickly gaining popularity. Its newly minted women's wrestling team broke the record in November for the most-attended women's college wrestling meet ever with a crowd of over 8,200.
The growing attention could have ticket managers like Rickertsen rethinking their calculus. He acknowledges that ticket prices could go up, but he is not expecting to increase prices dramatically.
"We're not going to triple our season ticket cost in one year or anything like that," he said. "But if data continues just to show even after Caitlin's gone that this is something that folks support and come out nightly, women's basketball could become self-sufficient," he said. "Which, you know, women's basketball hasn't been traditionally, just like every other sport here relies on the sport of men's basketball and football and the TV revenue that comes from those sports. If we continue to build on what we have here and continue to treat the customers that, for whatever reason they came around, whether it's Caitlin, for the Final Four run or just the hype or whatever, if they get here and realize that it's a good time and that they're treated right and the fan experience is good, they're going to come back."
Knoester noted that decades ago, professionals in men's sports weren't well paid. At that same time, it would have been pretty unthinkable to hear stories of college athletes making millions through name, image and likeness deals.
"I think oftentimes we become a bit selective in our memories of the long haul of the growth of many men's sports over time when we hear stories about professional men having part-time jobs," he said. "The research and statistics suggest that the growth of women's basketball, in particular, has proceeded at a pretty impressive pace in and of itself."
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