As Caitlin Clark turns professional, what’s next for women’s college basketball?

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CLEVELAND – And then it was over. Confetti fell. At 5:10 p.m. Sunday, inside Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, Kaitlin Clark was not at the center of the basketball world, but maybe 10 steps away.

There was celebration nearby in South Carolina, hands and heads all entwined in joy. The Gamecocks, not Iowa, had recently won the national title, meaning Clark lost in the championship game for the second consecutive year. She stood behind her coaches, waiting to shake hands. She was, in that moment, a living artwork – a reason for so many to take a breath, to sigh, for change. He would have to leave college without winning his final game of the season.

Of course, Clark’s impact on women’s college basketball won’t be measured that way. Whether the Hawkeyes won or lost, the game was going to wake up Monday and face life without its mind-bending star — better yet had she been in it but was responsible for using the 6-foot guard as a trampoline. Clark didn’t just change his game in his four years at Iowa. They created their own economy, turning talent into business and then business into progress.

Five years ago, this is how ESPN topped the 2020 high school recruiting class: Paige Bueckers, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink, Clark and Kamila Cardoso, who helped South Carolina finish 38-0 on Sunday. But since Bueckers isn’t the only one turning professional this month, how will this explosion in popularity of women’s college basketball continue?

“The WNBA is doing it right,” all-time great Candace Parker said Sunday. “I think that’s the next thing. So whatever that means.”

“You have three hours?” he asked laughing. “I want to close this conversation by saying that your college days are golden. I hope it stops with this generation.”

“This team came in at a really good time,” Clark said during his post-game press conference, “whether it’s social media, whether it’s the void, whether it’s having our games televised nationally. We’ve played on Fox, NBC, CBS, ESPN – you go down the list, and we’ve been on every national television channel. I think that’s one of the biggest things that has helped us. It doesn’t matter what sport it is, give them the same opportunities, believe in them the same, invest in them the same, and things are really going to blossom.

This surge in women’s basketball has been driven by stars, with Clark at the forefront. Parker wants the next chapter to be defined by rivalry. She wants ESPN to get a prime-time slot when Clark and Reese have their first match in the WNBA. It shouldn’t matter what jersey they wear – just like Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson did in the 1979 title game between Indiana State and Michigan State.

The WNBA should also pay better, Parker said. But if the league can convert more college basketball fans — especially new ones — she predicts a mixed effect. The WNBA’s increased interest will focus more attention on top college players, maintaining the lead behind Clark and Reese, expanding it to Bueckers, JuJu Watkins and beyond. A larger, more engaged WNBA audience will want to know who is coming up next year after year. Then maybe this Clarke-fueled moment isn’t so fleeting. Maybe it could be speed instead.

On Friday, Iowa’s semifinal victory over Connecticut was the most-watched basketball game in ESPN history, averaging 14.2 million viewers (and peaking at 17 million). The Indiana Fever are expected to select Clark with the first pick on April 15. She will begin her WNBA career with a preseason game on May 3. The Fever’s regular season opener will be May 14 at Connecticut.

“People like narratives,” Parker said. “That’s why you tune in.”

Allow Sue Bird, another women’s basketball legend, to open it up.

“What you saw today were two really special stories,” Bird said after Sunday’s title game. “… You had Caitlin on one side with Iowa, who obviously made such an impact on the game. The conversation around him – does he need to win to be the GOAT? – and just following her career and all the records she’s broken. So watching this team it felt like there was some destiny attached to it – even getting to the final felt like destiny – you look at that game. On the other side, you have South Carolina who is trying to have a bit of a revenge season, go undefeated, make up for last year and get a perfect win. You had these two great stories and that’s what drives the game. Now we have them.”

With ninety seconds left on Sunday, Iowa down on ninth down, Clark knifed inside and left a floater short. His shoulders slumped. He looked at the clock and nodded. On most nights, against most teams, Clark would have made a comeback feel possible in a weak, silly way. It’s part of his legacy too – permission to wonder beyond reason, permission to think so big that you make yourself laugh. He scored 18 points in the first quarter, 13 of which came in two minutes of playing time. He broke the record for career tournament points in four fewer games than the previous holder.

However, sometimes games focus on mathematics. The property disappears. Then you blink and four years are gone, leaving behind an existential challenge.

“People aren’t going to remember every single win or every single loss,” Clark said. “I think they’re just going to remember the moments they shared at one of our games, or watching on TV, or how excited their young daughter or son was to see women’s basketball. I think this is great.”

Sally Jenkins contributed to this report.

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