April 9, 2024 

Caitlin Clark is women’s basketball’s high-leverage star

To accurately judge her career, you must weigh the change she has driven in the context of the environment she has inherited

Sports fans love a buzzer-beater, a walk-off, a knockout blow. They love a dagger. Charlotte Smith against Louisiana Tech in 1994. Arike Ogunbowale against UConn in 2018, then again 48 hours later against Mississippi State for the national championship.

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Those plays all rattle around our heads when we look back on past games. They — understandably — become representative of the entire game in our memory. But games do not materialize out of thin air for that single moment. They are the culmination of every play that came before.

In the decades-long battle between those who love women’s basketball and those who would rather bury it, this moment is that dagger. Caitlin Clark has been “running the offense” down the stretch, but so much of the game took place before she arrived.

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Change versus greatness

It is important to be deliberate when making claims about the magnitude of Caitlin Clark’s career. It is especially important to separate out two key elements that are intertwined: the change she has driven and her greatness.

In terms of sheer greatness, Clark’s career production warrants discussion about where she stacks up among the all-time greats. It is not unreasonable to argue she is among the top handful of players ever, and it is more than reasonable to make the case she is the greatest offensive player ever.

On the topic of change, though, Clark’s four years at Iowa will likely go down as the career that drove the most visible change in the history of the women’s game.

Baseball fans have likely heard of a statistic known as win probability added, or WPA for short. WPA seeks to measure one thing and one thing only: How much more likely is your team to win the game now compared to on the prior play?

In basketball, cutting the deficit to 18 when you were down by 20 doesn’t move the needle that much, resulting in a minimal WPA. But when a player turns a tie game into a one-score lead, that is going to swing the odds in a major way and, thus, a high WPA. The concept of how easily you can move the needle at any given point is called leverage.

Decades of players who have their own claims to the status of greatest of all time hit shot after shot while facing a major deficit from the beginning. These players are no less important to the history of women’s basketball; they just played in a lower-leverage era when it required more effort to yield major change, chipping away at an impossible deficit.

Clark is women’s basketball’s high-leverage star, arriving at a time in this game — between those moving the sport forward and those holding it back — when it is easier than ever to drive change.

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A game recap

For the longest time, there was no “game” to speak of. Pre–Title IX, mass-organized college basketball was largely nonexistent for women as the rare collegiate teams competed in the Amateur Athletic Union against teams made up of industrial teams that were essentially professionals.

During the CIAW and AIAW eras, the NCAA looked opportunity in the face and effectively said, “No, thank you, but you can create your own game over there if you want.” This decision withheld countless legends of the game from national recognition.

As a result of this exclusion from the NCAA infrastructure, Lynette Woodard, Lusia Harris, Nancy Lieberman and many other players’ astounding careers were treated as second-rate. All the while, they carried the weight of an entire sport on their backs. Women’s basketball as we know it would not exist if it weren’t for this era of stars. Stars who were invaluable to the sport, yet their contributions were overlooked at the time.

The first megastar of the NCAA era, Cheryl Miller, helped draw audiences of more than 11 million people to watch each of the 1983 and 1986 championship games on CBS. Entering the 2024 NCAA Tournament, those still stood as the two most-watched games in tournament history.

Despite this, the NCAA and CBS allowed attention to atrophy over the following decade. Eventually, the rights lapsed, and games were taken off broadcast networks and instead buried on ESPN for the next 28 years.

As a result, the NCAA and ESPN –—purported key allies in the fight for visibility — held back the sport as waves of stars came and went without anywhere near the proper spotlight. This is on top of the previously mentioned AIAW-era players, who were not even given the notoriety that ESPN offered.

In some ways, Miller was to the generation of pre-NCAA players what Clark has become to the players of the ESPN/ESPN2 era: a shining example of what can happen if the deck becomes marginally less stacked against you.

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There is no rescue mission

Caitlin Clark did not “save” women’s basketball. Momentum was on the upswing before she burst onto the scene. Dawn Staley and A’ja Wilson’s 2017 championship game victory saw an increase in viewership of more than 30% compared to 2016, per Sports Media Watch.

An audience of 4.85 million viewers watched the 2022 title game between the Gamecocks and UConn. This was comfortably the most-watched game since 2004 at the time, as Aliyah Boston cemented herself as one of the greats.

And today, women’s basketball is not lacking for other stars. The sheer collection of talent we see today — Clark’s peers, like Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso, Paige Bueckers and many others — would have been more than enough to keep that momentum thriving and viewership growing.

Looking ahead, women’s basketball is in great hands with JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo and MiLaysia Fulwiley, who all already have become household names.

Business decisions have also contributed to this momentum, as the NCAA has removed some of the obstacles that faced the sport in the more lean seasons. ESPN began airing every tournament game to a national audience only four years ago, reversing a bizarre decision that capped the average fan’s engagement with the tournament for more than two decades. 

Then came the long-overdue decision to move the championship game from ESPN to ABC for the first time in 2023, which immediately paid off as last year’s title game set an ABC/ESPN-era record with an audience of 9.9 million viewers.

Clark has, of course, accelerated the growth. Her impact on viewership numbers is undeniable. After beginning her career consistently behind the paywalls of BTN+, Clark’s games have now set women’s basketball viewership records for ABC, ESPN, Fox, NBC, FS1, Big Ten Network and Peacock.

Clark and the Hawkeyes drew record viewership in every single round of the tournament, culminating in 18.89 million viewers in the national championship game against South Carolina, shattering the record for the most-viewed women’s game set just 48 hours earlier, of 14.43 million viewers for Iowa-UConn in the semifinals.

She will be remembered as the face of this moment because she is the player who accounted for the largest share of this growth.

But this is and always has been a team game, and that is not going to change in a post-Clark college basketball landscape.

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Written by Jacob Mox

Jacob Mox is a an editor at The Next, as well as a writer and contributor with Her Hoop Stats where you can find his work explaining the WNBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement and Salary Cap rules.

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