The Caitlin Clark effect is revolutionizing college basketball in the United States

The Iowa player, who has been compared to Stephen Curry, has surpassed her male counterparts in popularity, due to her scoring records

Caitlin Clark
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark celebrates setting the NCAA women's scoring record in a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con)
Miguel Jiménez

When she was a child, her father couldn’t find a girls’ basketball team. So he signed her up for a boys’ team. Now, at 22 years old, Caitlin Clark has revolutionized women’s college basketball, even breaking men’s records. After leading the Iowa Hawkeyes to their third consecutive Big Ten tournament, the guard will now try to go as far as possible in the national championship, which begins this week.

Whether she succeeds or not, Clark has already managed to become more popular than any male college player in the U.S., while also setting the all-time-high college basketball scoring records. The professional league — the WNBA — eagerly awaits her arrival, with a level of expectation comparable to what was raised last year by Frenchman Victor Wembanyama, when he was drafted into the NBA. The Indiana Fever — which gets the first pick in the WNBA Draft, scheduled for this April — is looking forward to receiving her.

Clark isn’t just a shooter with amazing aim, capable of scoring again and again from parts of the court where the rest of the players don’t even dare try to shoot from. She also blocks, rebounds and provides assists non-stop. When she’s overwhelmed by two rivals — which is frequent, given her offensive power — she’s able to find the solution and hand off the ball to a teammate, as if it were nothing. But, at six-feet-tall, she’s also skilled at driving to the basket, or pulling up for a jump shot at mid-distance. For all these reasons, she’s been compared to Stephen Curry. And there’s speculation that she will have an impact on women’s professional basketball similar to what the Golden State Warriors star caused in the NBA.

“I’ve been watching from afar and understanding just how much of a power she is out there on the court. The cool part is the way that she plays: [the] range and the level of difficulty on her shots is obviously a very close comparison to the way that I play,” Curry himself praised her this past week, in an interview on CBS. “Her shooting ability is her superpower but the rest of her game is as polished as that, so this is must-see TV,” he added. The record of 162 three-pointers in a single college season — set in 2008 by Curry, the best three-pointer in basketball history — is one that Clark has broken.

Clark was a precocious talent. After leaving the children’s league, she began to play with older teammates. Universities were already courting her when she was in middle school. With her athletic gifts, she was also a starter (and outstanding scorer) on the soccer team, although she left it to focus on basketball. After finishing high school, she rejected other offers and decided to remain in her home state and attend the University of Iowa. In her first college game, she scored 27 points. Weeks later, she recorded her first triple-double (10+ points, rebounds and assists). She finished the season as the absolute leader in points, assists, field goals and three-pointers.

In her second year of college ball — apart from a few individual records and leading the statistics in various categories (including points and assists per game) —, she led her team to reach the Big Ten, while being named MVP of the tournament. However, in the national championship, the Hawkeyes were upset in the second round, on one of Clark’s rare bad days.

In her third season, she was already causing a sensation throughout the country. The bleachers were filled with fans who wanted to see her, while the television audience skyrocketed. She continued to break records and, after winning the Big Ten title, she led her team to the finals. However, they were ultimately defeated by the Louisiana State Tigers, led by Angel Reese — nicknamed the “Bayou Barbie” — who is another star in women’s basketball.

Caitlin Clark is now looking for revenge. She entered 2024 in a state of grace. In the first game of the year, she gave the victory to her team with an incredible three-pointer at the buzzer, which had to be reviewed via instant replay. She then led her team to its third consecutive Big Ten tournament, racking up a total of 41 points in the semifinals and finals.

Along the way to the current competition — the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament (sometimes referred to as Women’s March Madness) —, Clark first broke the all-time scoring records among women. She reached the peak of the NCAA this past February 15 in a game against Michigan, in which she put up 49 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. On February 28, she surpassed Lynette Woodard’s legendary 3,649 points — the absolute record for women’s college basketball, which dated back to 1981, the year before the NCAA was established.

But she still had to beat the boys. On March 3, she broke the scoring mark of 3,667 points set by Pete Maravich (“Pistol Pete”), who held the men’s college record for 54 years (although, in his case, he achieved it in just three seasons, when there were still no three-pointers in the NCAA).

“I’m so focused on helping this team win and be so great, it’s hard to wrap my head around everything going on. I’m trying to soak in the moment,” Clark said, after breaking another record. Winning the championship would be the cherry on top of her college career, but the clear favorites — at least, according to the bookies — are the undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks, led by 22-year-old Kamilla Cardoso.

NCAA Womens Basketball
Caitlin Clark celebrates a three-pointer from almost half court in a game this month.Nick Wosika (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con)

The media is talking about the “Caitlin Clark effect.” The Fox network has dedicated a camera to Clark, which follows her throughout the game and retransmits the signal on TikTok. ESPN has assigned a reporter to exclusively cover the basketball star. Television audiences have skyrocketed in women’s college basketball: for the first time, female teams are getting more attention than male teams during March Madness. An Iowa Hawkeyes game broke the women’s basketball attendance record this season with 55,646 spectators. With her talent, her youth and her carefree image, Clark is a magnet for brands, with sponsorship contracts pouring in.

Even politicians are attempting to court her. During the Iowa caucuses, Republican candidate Nikki Haley (who has since dropped out of the primaries) used Clark as an example of what women can do — but she made an unforgivable mistake in the eyes of the locals, referring to the star as “Caitlin Collins.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis mocked his rival as soon as he had the chance: he appeared wearing a No. 22 jersey with the correct surname in an appearance on CNN shortly afterward.

“I hope women’s sports grow even more,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. When asked about Clark’s record-breaking stats, she replied: “For me, it’s not necessary to beat a man’s record to be recognized. You don’t have to do that. Breaking Lynette [Woodard’s] record was important. So, I admire Pistol Pete, but, at the same time, I don’t want that to be the bar for women’s sports.”

In Clark’s case, her father often makes a joke, using an anecdote from when his daughter won a championship game in school. The mother of one of the boys on the rival team complained about her superiority: “They shouldn’t let girls play with the boys.”

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