Doyel: Thanks to Caitlin Clark and Co., NCAA women's basketball is a star

Gregg Doyel
Indianapolis Star

Teri Moren and Katie Gearlds can see what’s happening in their sport. No, all of us can see what’s happening in their sport. No – all of us just saw it.

We’re watching the takeoff of women’s college basketball. Pretty cool to witness it in real-time, and to understand exactly what we’re watching, which sounds a lot like what we’re doing with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, actually. And we’re going to give more attention to Clark here in a moment, because how could we not?

But first, the bigger picture. She’s part of that bigger picture, the rise of Caitlin Clark tied inexorably – tied wonderfully – to the rise of women’s college basketball. Hey, you’re right, women’s college basketball has been a big deal – well, a decent-sized deal – for a while now. Games at Tennessee and UConn have sold out for years. ESPN puts an occasional regular-season matchup on national television. South Carolina, Notre Dame, Stanford, Duke: The women’s side, like men’s college basketball, has its bluebloods.

Purdue forward Rickie Woltman, left, knocks the ball away from Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten women's tournament Friday, March 3, 2023, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

But this is a whole other thing we’ve been watching in the last few days, the last few weeks, with the 2023 NCAA women’s basketball tournament culminating Sunday with LSU’s 102-85 victory against Iowa. Caitlin Clark got her 30, but Angel Reese got her ring. Kim Mulkey won another national title at another school. Dawn Staley’s juggernaut at South Carolina fell two games short of an undefeated run to a repeat title. You know the names. You know the storylines.

That’s the point.

Ratings for the NCAA women’s tournament set records and broke them days later, and it wasn’t just Caitlin Clark – though to be fair and accurate, her impact has been so big, I’m not sure it’s quantifiable. Moren and Gearlds, the coaches at IU and Purdue, will try to do that in a moment. So will I. We’re all going to fail, because measuring the impact of Caitlin Clark is like measuring the wattage of the North Star – good luck with that.

But here’s one fact.

“We’re at an all-time high,” Moren, the coach of the emerging monster that is IU women’s basketball, says of the women’s college game. “The parity is exciting to people. They’re not watching the same dang teams. Used to be in the past, you turned it on and UConn was just killing people, right? The parity, the teams, are better. It’s an exciting time for women’s basketball.”

Here’s another fact.

“Our country has tried to push women and give them the limelight, and it’s working,” says Gearlds, the coach of the rising power that is Purdue women’s basketball. “You look at fan attendance in the Big Ten, it was crazy. Obviously Iowa and Indiana were great. Our two games against Indiana were sold out – that’s the direction of our game. Can you credit Caitlin Clark, Dawn Staley, Angel Reese, (Indiana’s) Grace Berger and Mackenzie Holmes, all that? You can. We’re doing a great job of putting women where they can be seen.”

And we – you, I’m saying, and me – are doing a great job of recognizing what we’re seeing. And wanting to see more.

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Caitlin Clark: women's basketball GOAT

We’ve seen someone like Caitlin Clark before, but never on the women’s side. She’s like Steph Curry. She’s like Pete Maravich. She’s, like, the greatest singular talent in women’s basketball history.

Big words, and if you can’t bring yourself to say them yourself, I get it. It can feel like dismissing the past, dismissing the greatness of Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings and Cheryl Miller and Maya Moore and Sheryl Swoopes and Candace Parker and Your Favorite Player here.

Someday you’ll see, when Caitlin Clark joins the past – 20 years from now, after she’s done at Iowa and in the Olympics and the WNBA – and it’ll feel safer, less disrespectful to those who came before her, to acknowledge she’s the greatest of all time.

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No less an authority than Lisa Leslie, who won three WNBA MVP trophies and four Olympic gold medals and once scored 101 points in a high school game – in the first half – has compared Clark to the perfect combination of Taurasi’s shooting, WNBA career assists record-holder Sue Bird’s passing and Sheryl Swoopes’ size and ability to get a shot whenever she wants.

Clark is a walking triple-double who keeps doing things nobody has done, male or female, in college basketball. And that was just last week:

The first 40-point triple double in NCAA Tournament history, male or female, in the Elite Eight against Louisville. One game later: the most points scored in an NCAA Tournament semifinal, 41, against South Carolina. No player, male or female, had averaged 40 points and 10 assists in back-to-back NCAA Tournament games before that. One game later: Clark scores 30 against LSU, giving her 191 points in the tournament, the most by a male or female. Her 60 assists set a women’s record, and was one off the men’s record set by UNLV’s Mark Wade in 1987.

Look, you could read Caitlin Clark numbers forever – let’s stop with her three-year career averages at Iowa: 27.2 ppg, 8.0 apg, 7.0 rpg – or you could read some words from coaches who’ve tried to stop her. Start with Purdue’s Gearlds, who I gave my “20 years from now” theory on Clark’s approaching GOAT-ness.

“Twenty years from now,” Gearlds is agreeing with me, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re talking about her as the greatest female basketball player.”

Now Gearlds pauses, and corrects herself.

“Maybe not just female,” she says. “Not just that. She’s one of the best basketball players I’ve ever seen. She’s it.”

Moren of IU all but concurs, then says something even more astonishing.

“She is by far a once-in-a-lifetime player,” Moren says of Clark, “and is there a Caitlin Clark effect? Yeah. But I want to spread the love. I’m going to the Wooden Awards (Monday in Los Angeles), and Caitlin Clark will be there and she’s probably going to win it, but Mackenzie Holmes of Indiana, Aliyah Boston of South Carolina, Cameron Brink of Stanford and Maddy Siegrist of Villanova will be there, and they’re tremendous players.”

That’s not the astonishing part. Boston’s power and grace, Brink’s shot-blocking excellence, Siegrist’s scoring ability, Holmes’ double-double consistency – we know all that. But here’s something Moren says, something you might not know, when I give her my “20 years from now” theory about Caitlin Clark.

“I don’t know about that,” Moren says. “Young women, young girls, instead of becoming three-sport athletes they’re choosing, ‘OK, I’m going to be a basketball player. I’m going to be the next Caitlin Clark, I’m going to be the next Azzi Fudd (of UConn), I’m gonna be the next Mackenzie Holmes,’ and these girls are growing up faster, they’re stronger. I don’t know what’s happening, if it’s in the water or what, but in terms of athleticism, these young women are at another level.

“I’ve seen videos of some really young kids that are coming up now, kids that are dunking now and doing all kinds of things. I think 20 years from now there will be another player that will come along that will compare to Caitlin. For sure. But right now, in terms of her ability … yeah. Wow.”

Another Caitlin Clark? Maybe someone, gulp, better?

Yeah. Wow.

Women's college basketball is a rising star

The temptation is to pin the unprecedented excitement around women’s college basketball to the unprecedented Clark, and if you’re so inclined, to discount markers like attendance and TV ratings because of her presence. Clark will go eventually to the WNBA. And then what? Back to the fringes for women’s basketball?

Not sure about that.

IU sold out Assembly Hall (capacity: 17,222) when Purdue visited on Feb. 19. Not sure where Caitlin Clark was that day, but she wasn’t in Bloomington. Purdue sold out Mackey Arena (14,876) when IU visited Feb. 5, and Clark was nowhere near West Lafayette. Two weeks ago IU drew 14,480 fans for its second-round NCAA Tournament game against Miami, the third-largest such crowd in NCAA tourney women’s history. Both women’s Final Four matchups on ESPN – and Caitlin Clark didn’t play in the LSU-Virginia Tech game – drew better ratings than any NBA game shown this season by the same network.

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The IU women’s average attendance was a record 8,104, more than the Butler men averaged this season at Hinkle Fieldhouse (7,918).

Average attendance at Notre Dame women’s games (5,124 per game) was within striking range of the Notre Dame men (6,118).

“People want to follow winning teams,” Moren says, leaving out the word women’s, because it’s not necessary here. Our habits are changing. It helps that stars like Pat Mahomes and Steph Curry and LeBron James are watching women’s games and tweeting about it in real time. It helps that ESPN is promoting women’s sports so much that a certain website, run by cretins and incels – look up that word – mocked ESPN for being “woke” or whatever.

In a stroke of brilliant luck for the NCAA, its television contract for women’s basketball is up in a year, meaning negotiations are ongoing now. Did you know – and I bet you didn’t; lord knows I did not – that the women’s NCAA Tournament doesn’t have its own contract? Only college football and men’s college basketball have that honor. The women’s basketball tournament is packaged with nearly 25 other NCAA championship events, with ESPN paying roughly $34 million a year for all of it.

The NCAA commissioned a study that showed the women’s basketball tournament could be worth three times that amount alone. That study was done in 2021 – BCC.

Before Caitlin Clark.

So what’s the women’s game worth now? The customer is always right, and we’ve decided women’s basketball – games with Caitlin Clark, games without her – is a valuable commodity.

“For the longest time we’ve been in the men’s shadows,” Moren says. “If the higher-ups, the people way smarter than me, think we’re ready for (our own TV contract), great. We’d love to be independent of the guys and stand on our own two feet.”

Meantime, the NCAA can and will market Caitlin Clark during its next round of TV negotiations, and even coaches who compete with Iowa are grateful for her presence.

“A lot of this does come back to watching Caitlin Clark being a badass,” says Gearlds, who has to contend with Clark, a rising senior, for the 2023-24 season.

Or is it the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons?

“She’s great for our game, right?” Gearlds says. “She’s a huge reason those (TV) numbers are like that. It’s stupid. Why wouldn’t we try to ride her coattails? It stinks that we have to guard her, but I hope she takes her Covid year.”

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at

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