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Women's basketball is well-equipped to shape its own narrative

Women's basketball is well-equipped to shape its own narrative

If there is any singular number that has defined basketball in 2023, it might be 9.9 million — the viewership of Sunday's NCAA Tournament championship game between LSU and Iowa.

The figure isn't just the largest ever for a women's college game; it also flew past other audiences for some of American sports' marquee events.

To say the game has "arrived" is disrespectful to the illustrious history of women in basketball. But Sunday was a stage unlike any other, and those who watched on TV or paid hundreds to attend were awestruck by the outpouring of deserved fan support.

A poorly-officiated contest (Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic had some important thoughts on this) and the trash-talking discourse that followed are problematic, but they won't taper our excitement for the trajectory of women's basketball. An influx of new, casual, uninformed fans are swarming into the sport, and we're ready for them because we've learned two important lessons in the last week.

One: This generation's stars are glimmering in the spotlight.

Two: The sport's core of diligent media members and passionate fans won't take any B.S.

Angel Reese surpassed a million Instagram followers after winning the national title, a result of her superstar season and her "Bayou Barbie" persona. But her name also dominated headlines because of her John Cena and ring-me gestures towards Caitlin Clark in the closing minutes of LSU's win, earning critical labels like "classless" and others that hinted at more serious racist undertones.

Reese didn't hold back in her initial response.

"I don’t fit in the box that y’all want me to be in. I'm too hood, I'm too ghetto, y'all told me that all year. When other people do it, y'all don't say nothing. This was for the people that look like me," Reese said.

This is different from Reese "not caring" about the critics. She does care and is aware of her own aura, which she says has been criticized since high school. Reese cares that her image as a powerful, talented, confident Black woman resonates with younger girls who can relate to her, and that for so long, that combination of traits has been met with hate.

That Reese continues to quote tweet and subtweet, and take additional interviews on ESPN days after the game, shows she's not backing down from who she wants to be.

Clark is similarly aware of her standing as a figurehead for the sport. On Tuesday, she went on ESPN's Outside the Lines and basically ended the trash-talking discussion. 

"I don't think Angel should be criticized at all," Clark said. "No matter which way it goes, she should never be criticized for what she did. I'm always one that competes, and she competed. I think everyone knew there was gonna be a little trash talk the entire tournament; it's not just me and Angel."

Just as important was her full response on the importance of showing passion as an athlete:

Clark is arguably the biggest trending name in basketball right now and a truly generational talent who helped drive this year's record-shattering ratings. For her to jump on ESPN two days after a heartbreaking loss and be explicit with her opinions shows that she recognizes the gravity of her voice.

The Iowa sharpshooter rightfully captured the country's attention for her NCAA Tournament heroics. According to one Google search analysis from World Sports Network, Clark's name saw a 476% search increase in the last week of March Madness.

New fans were quick to label her a "best-ever" of some sort. The social media response: Familiarize yourselves with the college careers of Cheryl Miller, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Kelsey Plum or Sabrina Ionescu. 

And when some pretty loud voices took aim at Reese on Sunday, the community quickly let them know it was unacceptable.

As women's basketball has continued to rise, deserved passionate media coverage has reached the foreground. The Next Hoops, Winsidr, and Just Women's Sports are three of my personal go-to's, but these smaller (yet growing) independent outlets have helped legitimize and drive quality coverage. ESPN's television coverage is spectacular and The Athletic is another outlet with high-level storytelling. Arielle Chambers delivers phenomenal energy for HighlightHER, Mark Schindler does an amazing job at WNBA.com, and while I'm biased, our own Nekias Duncan's WNBA coverage is top-tier (as was his Clark film dive!).

We collectively know more about media and narrative than ever in our history. It allows these writers to make sure the sport is covered fairly and accurately at the college and pro levels, holding new, influential fans accountable. 

The players and coaches have stories to share, personalities to gravitate towards and electric talent to entertain with. The WNBA still has so much growth potential; it logged a 20% increase in regular-season viewership on ESPN last year, and this spring's March Madness momentum can be a springboard for another leap. And with NIL-driven branding soaring at the college level, more players and teams can place themselves in front of new audiences.

Sunday felt like the quantitative peak for women's basketball in the national conversation — what's exciting is that there's so much mountain still left to climb.

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