Shortly after the women’s NCAA Tournament set viewership and attendance records last year as LSU took down Iowa for the championship, the Charlotte Sports Foundation began making calls to see about hosting a major women’s basketball game to kick off the 2023-24 season.
The first call? Iowa. If it could get Caitlin Clark into the building in Charlotte, it knew tickets would sell. But the group also wanted a second Final Four team, preferably a more local one, where fans could drive to the event. So the next call was made to Virginia Tech.
Done. Coach Kenny Brooks and his Hokies would happily mark the start of the season with a high-caliber matchup.
Danny Morrison, the foundation’s executive director, was excited how quickly two Final Four teams jumped at the chance to play a competitive early-season game. But next came what he expected to be the tougher call: a title sponsor. Someone who would throw a ton of money at this game.
Morrison called Ally Financial. Within 24 hours, they agreed. A game — one that historically would’ve needed a year to plan — took just days to pull together.
“You don’t normally have it happen like this,” Morrison said of how quickly and easily everything came together.
Caitlin Clark started her college career playing in front of cardboard cutouts during the pandemic.
Last night, she dropped 44 pts on #8 Virginia Tech in front of 15,000 people in Iowa’s 2nd game of the season. pic.twitter.com/shI90qCCiD
— Front Office Sports (@FOS) November 10, 2023
But you also don’t normally have the women’s national title game peak at 13 million viewers. And you don’t normally have stars like women’s basketball does right now with Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers and so many others. You don’t normally have this many elite teams in a single season.
But that’s the thing about the singular significant moments and the special season that elevate a sport. They are rare. They don’t normally happen. And the only way they can happen more frequently is when opportunities within those seasons are seized.
Opportunities like a massive game in Charlotte between Final Four teams. Opportunities like South Carolina and Notre Dame tipping off the season in Paris. Opportunities like Iowa putting 94 feet of hardwood in a football stadium and tipping off.
Iowa women’s basketball sets attendance record with game at Kinnick Stadium
It doesn’t normally happen like this.
With each of those opportunities, teams and players have shown they’ll more than rise to the moment. And just as important, the stakeholders around those teams and games also rose to the moment.
Because the Charlotte game doesn’t happen unless Iowa coach Lisa Bluder and Brooks agree to play a tough game before their teams have jelled. It doesn’t happen unless Morrison gets Ally to foot the bill. The exact amount of Ally’s sponsorship is not known. Each team got $150,000 and Iowa got an additional $50,000 for travel, per the Charlotte Sports Foundation, though it did not say if Ally paid all of that cost.
And it doesn’t get the attention it deservedly got if Georgia Amoore, one of many elite point guards this season, doesn’t go toe-to-toe with Clark.
Paris doesn’t happen unless Lea Miller-Tooley, the president of Complete Sports Management (which organized the game) thinks outside the box about hosting the first college basketball game in Paris. Or if Dawn Staley and Niele Ivey aren’t on board to fly their teams halfway across the world to test themselves on that stage. And it doesn’t get seen in the way it deserves unless ESPN sends its top crew across the Atlantic to broadcast from there — and not remotely — from Bristol.
And 56,000 people don’t show up on a chilly Sunday in Iowa City with Clark at center stage unless the university and its athletic department get behind the event.
Women’s college basketball is at an inflection point and so many people within the game see it as such.
But for this season to squeeze out all of the potential that’s there for the sport to grow as much as it could, more people need to see this season for what it is — one massive opportunity to make things happen.
Charlie Baker, the NCAA president, and his team have a giant decision in front of them: Will the organization split the women’s tournament from the other championships and sell the television rights as its own entity? The (non-profit) NCAA, which runs college football like a Fortune 500 company, has a chance to make an extra $100 million or so, presumably, if it does so. Coming into this season, he should’ve been calling every Top 25 coach to establish relationships and understand how they see the sport, where they see its fit within the ecosystem of American sports. The NCAA should’ve had a summit this summer with the biggest stakeholders in the game to figure out capitalizing on women’s basketball this season.
(Narrator: They did not have that summit.)
Big Ten commissioner Tony Pettiti, who is in his first year on the job, inherited a conference that houses Clark, arguably college sports’ most recognizable athlete. Next year, the Big Ten becomes the country’s first bi-coastal conference that, in addition to Clark, will have some of the brightest young stars in the game who could take her mantle. Few hold more vital keys to the growth of women’s college basketball than Petitti. He should have a team studying how stars, specifically in women’s college hoops, are molded and made by exposure through social media and traditional media, and he should be preparing to apply those lessons to Ohio State’s Cotie McMahon and USC’s JuJu Watkins and whoever comes next to boost the Big Ten.
(Narrator: There is no team studying Clark.)
ESPN, which smartly moved the national title game to ABC last season, giving the title matchup more reach, will keep the national championship on ABC. But it won’t be played in prime time and the company opted against moving the Final Four matchups to ABC, as well.
(Narrator: Le sigh)
Women’s basketball is potentially the largest high-growth entity in collegiate sports. There are fans waiting to be let in, and the people holding the keys need to be unlocking those doors left and right. Because the players and teams have shown that once fans are in arenas or watching on TV, there’s going to be a show. Early returns are promising for another massive year.
On the first day of the NCAA season, South Carolina-Notre Dame was the highest viewed college basketball game of the day, even as it was aired during an unfavorable 1 p.m. window (to account for the time change). Unranked NC State’s upset over No. 2 UConn on Sunday, which ESPN aired on ABC, drew 625,000 viewers. That ranks as ABC’s fourth-best regular-season women’s college hoops game ever.
Already this season, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams have fallen. South Carolina, a program known for its dominant defensive performances, has thrown down multiple 100-point games.
On Sunday night in a decisive 32-point win over then-No. 9 Indiana, Stanford — in the midst of the Pac-12 swan song — reminded everyone why it shouldn’t be counted out of anything and exactly why the game’s winningest coach resides in Palo Alto.
There is an abundance of star power and elite teams this season. There is no shortage of storylines around the sport’s personalities. The conversation is bubbling with excitement.
And no, it doesn’t normally happen like this.
This season could be the one that changes this sport.
If so many people are tuning in and showing up to watch Caitlin Clark, the least stakeholders in women’s basketball can do is take a cue from its brightest star: shoot the logo 3.
(Photo of Caitlin Clark: G Fiume / Getty Images)