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