By Aidan Currie
“Women’s basketball is awesome.” That simple statement was uttered by Caitlin Clark during her postgame interview with FOX Sports’ Kim Adams, and as someone who had the pleasure of attending No. 3 Iowa’s win over Maryland in front of a sold-out Xfinity Center crowd on Saturday night, I couldn’t agree more.
Women’s basketball is awesome, and Caitlin Clark is the reason why.
Entering Saturday night’s matchup against the Hawkeyes, Maryland found themselves in an unfamiliar spot. After making an Elite Eight run in last season’s NCAA tournament, the Terps were posting an underwhelming 12-9 record on the season, and an even more concerning 4-6 record in BIG 10 play.
To add to their disappointing splits in the win-loss columns, the Terps had faced some of their biggest struggles of the season throughout the three games they played before hosting Iowa. During this time Maryland went 0-3 with a heartbreaking overtime loss at Michigan, a blowout loss at Penn State that saw the Terps’ defense surrender 112 points, and a frustrating loss at home to No.10 Indiana in which they never held a lead. Oh and if that wasn’t enough, junior guard Shyanne Sellers – the team leader in points, assists, rebounds, and blocks – was questionable (she did end up playing on Saturday) with a knee injury that she picked up during the aforementioned loss to Penn State.
Given Maryland’s tribulations, I had some doubts about what the atmosphere may look like inside of the Xfinity Center on Saturday night. Tickets for the game had sold out in mid-December, but that was before BIG 10 play had even begun, and the Terps were in the midst of a seven-game winning streak.
Yet, as soon as I saw the absurd mass of people covering nearly every square foot of the grand staircase that leads up to Gate A – over two hours before tipoff no less – I realized that it wouldn’t have mattered who Iowa’s opponent was on Saturday. Maryland could’ve walked into the game sitting at 0-21, and the DMV faithful still would’ve flocked to the Xfinity Center in droves, because when the Hawkeyes show up, conventionality goes out of the window.
“People spend a lot of time, money, and resources to come see us play,” said Clark. “All last season we had 10,000 plus [people] at home, and then we go on the magical run that we go on, and we’re playing in front of sold-out crowds every step of the way.”
To truly visualize the constant sellouts that the Hawkeyes have seen since Clark skyrocketed to prominence, I looked at BIG 10 home-attendance figures – which I got from ESPN’s “Game Information” section on each game page – for every one of Iowa’s conference road opponents over the past two seasons, and I summarized all of that into the two charts below. The information in both charts is as of Sunday, Feb. 4th.
*Illinois’ home game vs. Iowa during the ‘22-’23 season occurred during Illinois’ winter break
As someone who didn’t start following women’s college basketball closely until this year when I began covering Maryland, I was surprised to see that last season Clark and the Hawkeyes weren’t always the box office attraction that we know them to be now.
In some cases during the ‘22-’23 season Iowa managed to draw more than double their opponents’ average BIG 10 attendance – specifically against Nebraska and Michigan. In other instances, however, the Hawkeyes actually saw below-average crowds (like with Wisconsin and Michigan State).
While it’s clear that Clark and Iowa possessed significant pull amongst fans last season, I believe this season’s attendance figures (provided below) really display the way in which Clark put the country on notice during her performance throughout last season’s NCAA tournament.
*Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena has a capacity of 7,039, so their 7,039-person crowd against the Hawkeyes was a sellout.
**Rutgers’ home game vs. Iowa this season occurred during Rutgers’ winter break, yet the 8,000-person crowd at Jersey Mike’s Arena was still a sellout.
While this chart paints a gaudy picture of the way in which the Hawkeyes have been able to double – and in some cases triple – their BIG 10 opponents’ average conference attendance this season, the most telling example of the “Caitlin Clark Effect” was made obvious in Iowa’s trip to Madison this season.
When Clark and the Hawkeyes played the Badgers at the Khol Center back on Dec. 4th, 2022, the game only drew an attendance of 3,962 fans, a figure that was actually below the Badgers’ Big 10 average last season. But when Iowa traveled back just over a year later on Dec. 10th, 2023, attendance more than tripled with a staggering 12,252 fans on tap to see the Hawkeyes win 87-65.
Overall, Iowa’s BIG 10 road opponents have averaged 5,076 fans this season, when they haven’t been hosting the Hawkeyes. However, when Caitlin Clark and Co. come to town, that number catapults to an average attendance of 13,130, which I’m sure would be even higher if it weren’t for the small arenas at Rutgers and Northwestern. Arena judging aside though, that’s an astonishing increase of 259%.
Quite frankly though, opposing fans aren’t showing out for these games because they want to see highly competitive basketball (this is an Iowa team with a +23 point scoring margin after all). They’re doing so because Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes are the sports equivalent of a traveling circus, and they host mind-boggling spectacles at every arena they step foot in.
“We play a fast style of basketball that’s up-tempo,” said Clark. “We’re going back and forth trading baskets, and people want to watch that.”
It’s this extremely fast play style that has the Hawkeyes leading all DI teams in scoring this season, as they’re the only team averaging more than 90 points per game. This highly offensive version of basketball is headlined by Clark’s willingness to regularly pull up from way beyond the three-point line, and rightfully so.
As Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said in a press conference on Friday, “Everybody knows that when [Clark] comes across half court that’s as good of a shot for her as any,” which is exactly why her play style draws so many comparisons to that of Stephen Curry. Just 15 seconds after Iowa had won the opening tipoff against Maryland, we got to see some of her Curry-esque traits in action, when she drilled a 3-pointer that would’ve been good in the NBA.
The Curry comparisons, however, go far beyond Clark’s ability to shoot the basketball. While she would go on to finish the game with 38 points and 12 assists, the Hawkeyes’ win over the Terps wouldn’t have been possible if not for Molly Davis’ efficient 17 points, and Kate Martin’s quiet 15-point, 10-rebound double-double. Conversely, though, neither of their performances would’ve been as stellar if it wasn’t for Clark.
In the same way that Stephen Curry’s presence on the floor makes everyone else around him better, Clark simply creates offensive opportunities for her teammates by just being on the court.
In the case of Davis and Martin on Saturday night, both were able to get open looks because Clark’s presence was stretching the Maryland defense. After Clark set the tone with her first triple, Maryland defenders found themselves guarding her well beyond the three-point line whenever Iowa got into its offensive sets. Because Clark is a matchup nightmare, other Terp defenders were also required to move toward her in help defense. What resulted was five made layups for Martin – inside of a paint that Maryland simply did not have enough bodies to cover – and three open-look 3-pointers from Davis. In a game that the Hawkeyes won by eight points, both of their contributions were absolutely necessary to Iowa’s victory, and it was all sparked by the scoring threat posed by the best player in the country.
Result aside, Saturday night’s game simply served as a massive victory for women’s college basketball as a whole. Not only did the fans in attendance create one of the best atmospheres in the sport has seen this season, but the highly competitive nature of the game – especially between what’s now the No. 2 team in the country and a team that’s 13-10 overall – shows just how deep the competition is throughout the women’s game.
“Maryland, … they’re 12-10, but … they’re so much better than that,” said Clark. “They’re so good, and you have to come and be ready to play every single night, and that’s why I love it. … I think that’s why people are continuing to tune in.”
For those watching at home, the game was nationally broadcasted on FOX as part of the network’s “Primetime Hoops” series, which showcases highly anticipated men’s and women’s college basketball games, called by one of the premiere voices of college sports, Gus Johnson. I point this out to emphasize how Clark is currently drawing an unprecedented amount of national attention to women’s college basketball.
Saturday night’s matchup was Iowa’s eighth nationally televised game of the season. For comparison, the No. 2 Purdue men’s basketball team – with their own reigning Naismith Player of the Year, Zach Edey – have played nine games on the national stage at this same point in their season.
The recent rise in popularity of women’s college basketball goes well beyond what Clark has done over the past four years at Iowa though. While she may be the current face of women’s college sports – and one could even argue that she’s the biggest name in college sports, period – Clark has not led this charge alone.
During the past few seasons Paige Bueckers, Cameron Brink, Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso, and many others, have all grabbed the attention of casual college sports fans with the unique skill sets they’ve brought to the women’s game. Additionally, with freshmen like JuJu Watkins and Hannah Hidalgo making names for themselves this season the sport seems to be in excellent hands moving forward.
In what will likely be her last season at the collegiate level, Caitlin Clark is set to leave an unprecedented legacy on the world of women’s college basketball.
“I came to Iowa with huge aspirations, and now I’m getting to play in front of 15,000 plus [fans] every single night,” said Clark. “Those are moments that you really can only dream of, and now I’m living [them] every single day of my life, and that’s really special [to me].”
While the Iowa-made superstar often receives acclaim for her scoring records and video-game-like stat lines, the one area of her game that deserves the most praise is her ability to make people care. Still just a senior in college, Clark has drawn more attention to women’s basketball than any hooper has before her. Even though there’s still progress to be made, Clark is currently on a path to becoming one of the most influential athletes – yes that’s “athletes”, not “female athletes” – of all time because if ever there was someone to bridge the popularity gap between the men’s and women’s basketball, it would be none other, than Caitlin Clark.