Leistikow: From local story to 18.9 million viewers, how Caitlin Clark changed the game (2024)

How in the world did all of this happen?

Absolutely, we central Iowa sports fans saw the early signs that Caitlin Clark was an exceptional talent while playing for Dowling Catholic High School. Clark won youth-level gold medals for Team USA and became one of the top women’s basketball recruits in America.

But there were thousands of young women before her and there will be thousands after her who are highly accomplished and highly recruited prospects. Yet no single person before her ever did what Caitlin Clark of West Des Moines, Iowa, has done to grow the game of women’s basketball.

How?

In less than four years, how did she go from Dowling Catholic student to world superstar who is sponsored by the same major sports brands that Michael Jordan once was and whose presence fueled more TV viewership for any basketball game at any level on any network in the last five years?

The Caitlin Clark story will be unpacked and told forever. Books will be written about her. An ESPN documentary that followed her final season at Iowa is entering the final stages of completion and will air in May.

And we know her story is still just beginning. On Monday night, she will be selected No. 1 overall in the WNBA Draft by the Indiana Fever. Before she even takes the court in mid-May as a pro for the first time, ticket prices for her expected appearances on the court have skyrocketed to five or six times above face value.

To fully comprehend how this all came together in this way is somewhat subjective, and not every angle can be pursued in one newspaper column or even one 45-minute documentary episode.

Certainly, one must give credit to her parents, Brent and Anne Clark, for the way they were able to raise such a remarkable daughter who somehow at age 21 and 22 has handled all the pressures of A-list celebrity and still delivered, time after time, on the basketball court while inspiring a younger generation of athletes.

Her brothers, Blake and Colin, also deserve credit for the way they helped her learn how to compete against (and eventually dominate) boys at a young age.

The uncommon intensity and desire to be great have always burned within Clark herself, and she is the one who put in so much time and work into the game she has always loved. Greatness doesn’t just happen with the snap of the fingers or by winning a genetics lottery. Clark also has a magnetic, funny and engaging personality that has allowed her to be highly marketable for sponsors like Hy-Vee, State Farm and Nike.

And credit also needs to go to all of her basketball coaches – and those in her other favorite sport, soccer, too – along the way. They deserve credit for helping bring the best out of her over the course of her 22 years. Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder sits atop that list. Bluder had the belief that Clark could take what she had built – which had peaked in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight in 2019 – and elevate the Hawkeyes to a higher level. And Bluder and her incredible staff allowed Clark to be what God made her to be while also helping direct her now-legendary intensity into the most positive directions possible.

Still … how did this phenomenon happen? Really? It’s still hard to believe, isn’t it?

The date Feb. 6, 2022, is as good a place as any to start.

Leistikow: From local story to 18.9 million viewers, how Caitlin Clark changed the game (1)

A meteoric show in Michigan stokes the buzz

On Feb. 6, 2022, about two-thirds of the way through Clark’s sophom*ore season, Iowa was without two key injured players – Gabbie Marshall and McKenna Warnock – on a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan. The season had been up and down to that point for the Hawkeyes. In a late December home game against IUPUI, Iowa sold $1 tickets and still drew only 4,632 fans. Iowa suffered a stunning one-point loss that night, with the curtains down at Carver-Hawkeye Arena – as they almost always were – to make the building feel less empty.

Clark had been doing some amazing things, though, and was starting to post some eye-popping stat lines. Two days before this game at Michigan, a long-form profile by the Register was published online with the headline: “How lifelong Iowan Caitlin Clark grew into a must-watch basketball star.”

People were just starting to tune in. But after this night at Michigan’s Crisler Center – even though her team lost, 98-90, to the sixth-ranked team in the country – even more eyeballs began to take notice of what had mostly been a localized story to date.

In that game, Iowa trailed by as many as 25 points. But Clark put on a fourth-quarter show for the ages. She scored 25 points in that quarter alone – making 8-of-10 shots, including 4-of-5 3-pointers, with one of those coming from the heart of the “M” logo near the mid-court line – and a then-career-high 46 for the game. She brought Iowa within five points in the final two minutes. The audacious range was quickly captured on ESPN’s "SportsCenter" and spread like wildfire on social media. As an example, YouTuber “Mr. Beast,” whose channel today has more than 240 million subscribers, tweeted that night: “Someone remind me to watch their next game, this is insanity haha.”

To that point in Clark’s career, Iowa’s record was 35-16, a solid .686 winning percentage that was in line with an above-average year in the Bluder era.

But in the 88 games that happened after that moment – barely 26 months ago – the Hawkeyes went 74-14 (.841), including some of the most memorable wins in Hawkeye sports history.

A few weeks after Clark’s 46-point barrage in Ann Arbor, media coverage grew. Within three weeks, Carver-Hawkeye was completely sold out in front of 15,056 fans for a Feb. 27 rematch against Michigan. With a Big Ten regular-season title on the line for whichever team won, Clark canned 8-of-11 3-pointers and finished with 38 points in an electric 104-80 butt-whipping. Then came the postseason, and the Hawkeyes would never lose in the Big Ten Tournament in the Clark era again – going 9-0 with three titles, despite never being the No. 1 seed.

That Feb. 6, 2022, game at Michigan seemed to simultaneously deliver a reminder within the Hawkeye locker room the amazing levels Clark’s game could reach while creating buzz in the outside world that with her, nothing seemed out of reach. So, when Marshall and Warnock returned from their injuries, the Iowa team was that much better. And the buzz grew that March, with Yahoo Sports proclaiming Clark as “the most entertaining player in college basketball."

Then came the jarring second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Creighton that ended Clark’s sophom*ore year abruptly, but that only fueled her intense drive even more for the magical two-year ride that was to come.

During a May 2022 interview with the Register after an offseason workout in West Des Moines, Clark recalled the full arena for the Michigan game and said wistfully that she wanted "to sell out every game" the following year. She also never backed down from her initial desire to take Iowa back to its second-ever Final Four and first since 1993.

“It was a little hard for us from time to time," Clark said of her sophom*ore year. “But there was also that stride we hit at the end of the year where we were tremendous. And if we could play like that every single game, we're going to be unstoppable.”

As usual, Clark’s brash words proved prophetic.

A freeing decision and one final net-cutting run

That Michigan 2022 game seemed to ratchet up the Clark buzz that would only keep growing into what became the 2023 Final Four run that she had promised. It included the stunning Final Four upset of South Carolina; a national title-game appearance that was watched by 9.9 million TV viewers; the first of two sweeps of consensus national player of the year honors; and a rapid sellout of season tickets for her senior year at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Clark was already among the hottest tickets in sports, with get-in prices reaching hundreds of dollars apiece for some of her biggest games.

One of the reasons that Clark’s star rose to such tremendous heights, though, was because she learned over the course of her career that making her teammates better was Iowa’s ticket to team glory. When Clark felt like she had to do it all, Iowa wasn’t as good. When she deferred to her teammates, they all played at their best levels. By the end of her Iowa career, Clark's passing skills were almost as famous as her long-distance shooting range.

On that level, there was one more seemingly obscure date in Caitlin Clark history that became very important to the final trajectory of her Iowa career: Feb. 28, 2024.

That was the night Iowa played at Minnesota and the day before Clark would publicly announce that she was entering the WNBA Draft. Clark’s performance that night in Minneapolis was nothing short of sensational – 12 points in the game’s first three minutes, with two “logo” 3-pointers, and 21 in the first 10:58 – on the way to a 108-60 Iowa rout. She recorded a triple-double. With 33 points, she broke Lynette Woodard’s all-time AIAW (pre-NCAA) points mark, putting to rest any dispute about the greatest scorer in Division I women’s basketball history.

Leistikow: From local story to 18.9 million viewers, how Caitlin Clark changed the game (2)

With her decision known internally, she and the Hawkeyes visibly played with the joy that we’ve become accustomed to seeing. The pressure had been practically suffocating this superstar player and this team for months, and it felt like a weight of uncertainty had been lifted team-wide. At Williams Arena that night, the Hawkeyes connected on a school-record 22 3-pointers on 39 attempts (a 56.4% clip).

So, Clark’s late-afternoon WNBA announcement to the public the next day served as maybe one of the biggest assists of her college career and launched a run and a TV-ratings bonanza that will never be forgotten.

By announcing her intent, Clark was telling her fans that this was it. Her senior day three days later would become the hottest ticket in women’s basketball history (with get-in prices at more than $400 per seat). Now, everyone could just enjoy and savor every moment that was ahead, rather than wasting oxygen and keystrokes debating whether this should be or would be the end of Clark’s Hawkeye career.

The announcement, finally, seemed to channel more media coverage toward Clark’s deserving teammates. After she broke “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s 54-year-old scoring mark in D-I (3,667 points) on a rousing senior-day win vs. second-ranked Ohio State, there were no more big numbers for Clark to chase.

Kate Martin’s career began to be warmly appreciated for her toughness and ability to rise up in big games – like she did in the closing quarter against UConn after suffering a bloody nose in the national semifinals.

Gabbie Marshall’s defense was appreciated more than ever, especially as the undersized guard rose up and recorded critical late-game blocked shots in postseason wins over Nebraska and West Virginia. Her incredible effort in defending UConn star Paige Bueckers (not to mention drawing the game-clinching moving screen) will be forever cherished by Hawkeye fans.

Molly Davis’ knee injury and the outpouring of love from fans served as a heartwarming sidebar to Iowa’s postseason run. Sharon Goodman’s selfless approach as a teammate despite a mid-season benching was highlighted and applauded by Hawkeye fans.

Clark drew the viewers, but this team contributed to them staying for the show.

Clark's first nine games as a Hawkeye were available only on streaming services, and some of the games were played on weekday afternoons. Her 10th game was seen by 54,000 viewers on Big Ten Network. Flash-forward barely three years, and viewership of Clark's 137th, 138th and 139th college games are the three most-watched women's basketball games ever: 12.3 million for Iowa's Elite Eight win over LSU; 14.4 million for Iowa's Final Four win over UConn; and 18.9 million viewers on ABC for the 87-75 title-game loss against South Carolina.

That was the most-watched basketball game – college or pro – on any network since the Virginia-Texas Tech men’s final in 2019. The Iowa-South Carolina number outdrew this year's UConn-Purdue men’s championship game (14.8 million), the Grammys (17.1 million), the Alabama-Georgia SEC championship football game (17.5 million) and every final round of the Masters dating to Tiger Woods’ win in 2001.

The "viewership interest in Caitlin Clark was a unicorn," according to The Athletic's Richard Deitsch, who tracks media coverage and predicts we will see a step back in ratings after she's gone. But her media draw will continue in the WNBA. Just this week, it was announced that more Fever games will be televised on national platforms (36 of 40) than any other WNBA team. Last year, the Fever had one nationally broadcast game.

Clark finished her Iowa career with countless records, too many to list here. Her final career statistics include 3,951 points (No. 1 in NCAA D-I history by more than 400), 1,144 assists (No. 3), 548 3-pointers (No. 1) and 28.4 points per game (No. 1).

Caitlin Clark played. More people than ever stayed for the show.

How it happened is less important to Clark than how it will be remembered.

“At the end of the day, people aren't going to remember how many points I scored,” she said the day before Iowa's game against UConn. “… Like my buzzer-beating shots versus whoever. That's not going to matter to people in the end.

“I hope they remember how we made them feel, how we brought joy to their lives, how we gave their families something to scream about on the TV on the weekends.

“I hope all the young boys and girls remember the joy that we played with and how we took 10 seconds of our time to sign their autograph and that inspired them to be whatever they want to be.

“I think I'm speaking for our entire team, and that's what we're the most proud of, the way we've carried ourselves through this entire process. I think that's additionally allowed us to have so much success on the court, just the team and the family we've built over the past four years.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has served for 29years with The Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Sports Network. Chad is the 2023 INA Iowa Sports Columnist of the Year and NSMA Co-Sportswriter of the Year in Iowa. Join Chad's text-message group (free for subscribers) atHawkCentral.com/HawkeyesTexts.Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Leistikow: From local story to 18.9 million viewers, how Caitlin Clark changed the game (2024)

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