Angel Reese vs. Caitlin Clark is moment women's basketball fans have been waiting for
Columnist Greg Moore notes that the debate over LSU and Iowa stars' taunts proves the sport is finally breaking through
What if this was the moment that the women’s basketball world has been waiting for, and we all missed it?
Think about it. The NCAA women’s Final Four was the story of spring. Angel Reese vs. Caitlin Clark was bigger than anyone could have predicted. It was bigger than Opening Day in baseball. Bigger than the NBA playoff race. And bigger than the Masters tournament.
“It’s been coming,” former Arizona State women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “It’s been culminating. Even pre-pandemic. 2019 NCAA Tournament was the most viewed. Biggest fanbase. … It’s been trending great.”
It’s a key point that’s been lost in the debate over whether racism was the reason that Reese has been considered obnoxious while Clark has been viewed as precocious, and why in the world Jill Biden thought it was a good idea to invite a losing team to the White House, and why we credit the wrestler John Cena with Clark’s silly hand gesture when he stole it from the rap star Tony Yayo: We were debating women’s hoops with the intensity typically reserved for Jordan vs. LeBron!
This normally would be the space where we explain in detail what happened in the aftermath of LSU's win over Iowa in the women's championship, but it feels unnecessary given all that already has been been written and said, which is the exactly the point.
I missed it at first, too. That was until I called my mother on Easter Sunday. When she gave me an update on the family, she told me about my niece, who’s 9, and said the little one has been talking about making the WNBA, which prompted my mom to watch the final.
It must be said that I don’t think my mom has watched a game in her life — of any sort.
Not a Super Bowl, World Series or Stanley Cup game. Not an All-Star, celebrity or charity game. And let’s just be blunt about it, I played seven years of football, and she maybe — MAYBE — came to see me once. (In her defense, I didn’t play much, and when I did, I was a horrifying combination of scrawny and slow. She probably didn’t want to see her only son trampled. I can’t blame her. I wouldn’t have watched me, either.)
But this month, my mom was watching a game between two teams with which she had no direct connection and was so invested that she brought it up to me, unprompted.
TV networks and social media have played a huge role in that attention, which is a far cry from Turner-Thorne’s playing days.
“Back in the Stone Age,” the consultant and broadcast analyst said in a phone interview, “we didn’t have media coverage, so it was hard to draw fans.
“When I played, Pablo Morales, the Olympic swimmer, covered our team. … That was our claim to fame. Other than that, it was pretty pathetic.”
Now? Traditional media outlets were all over Dallas. But forget them. “Saturday Night Live” made Reese into character on Weekend Update.
“The Bayou Barbie is in the building!” cast member Punkie Johnson said as Reese, wearing a No. 10 LSU jersey.
Rhonda Bennett, associate commissioner for women’s basketball with the Pac-12, appreciates the attention.
“It was great that we had people talking about the women’s game, two and three days after the national championship and on the weekend after the national championship game,” she said.
As for the “SNL” jokes, Bennett said “that’s showing that women’s basketball is engaging fans that maybe aren’t traditional women’s basketball fans. It’s getting into pop culture. I think that’s great.”
She thinks the growth is sustainable because it’s part of a trend.
“I think this has been building over several years, I don’t think this is a fluke,” she said, citing sold out Final Fours and huge moments, including Morgan William of Mississippi State hitting a buzzer-beater in 2017 to end a 111-game win streak by UConn.
There’s still room for the sport to grow before the Final Four reaches Phoenix in 2026.
We still don’t see early tournament games at neutral sites. We still don’t see big attendance numbers in November and December. And we aren’t seeing the big endorsement deals that put players on national television ads.
But it could be coming up.
After all, my sister says that my niece just had her first basketball practice.
If my mother is watching, that’s a good sign.
Could be that in 50 years, we’ll all look back at this as the moment women’s basketball arrived.
Reach Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @SayingMoore.
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