Caitlin Clark and the 10-Step Sports Phenom Playbook

Clark, meanwhile, plays a complete game—but, like Curry, her deep shots fill Iowa’s social posts. Her heat-checks are made-to-order for SportsCenter. As fans began to tune in more often to Iowa games, they wanted to see the “logo shots”—and Clark obliged. She’s a ballplayer first, but a showman as well. She gives packed arenas and fans at home what they tune in for: hitting shots that most other players won’t even attempt.

A Clear Opening

Pop quiz: who won AP College Player of the Year during Clark’s freshman season? Answer: not Clark, but UConn guard Paige Bueckers. And, by all rights, Bueckers was set to become the face of women’s college hoops: she played for the most dominant program in recent history, a few miles down the road from ESPN headquarters. But early in her sophomore season, Bueckers injured her knee and missed the next 19 games. Clark, meanwhile, was continuing to roll in Iowa City, averaging 27 per game as a sophomore. Coverage previously directed at Bueckers began sliding towards Clark. When Bueckers missed her junior season due to injury, the Caitlin Clark coverage train was off and running. When a window of opoortunity arises, the phenom takes advantage. Jeremy Lin, you’ll remember, spent a chunk of his Linsanity season playing in the D-League—but when injuries gave him a path the the starting lineup, he thrived.

The Right Landscape

Men’s college basketball has an issue with star power: Great freshmen usually go pro, making the big-name coaches the constant. Zion Williamson, the last phenom in men’s college ball, played all of 33 games. Clark has played almost 140.Accordingly, the women’s college game has more storylines that go from one season to the next. This has given Clark three sequels to her great freshman campaign. And the public loves a good sequel.

Fans in High Places

During Clark’s sophomore year, NBA stars like Kevin Durant began taking note of her breakout games, tweeting as she shredded the opposition. This attracted the non-women’s college basketball fans. She became a curiosity and sports fans began searching out her games. Iowa Associate SID Matt Weitzel told me that he remembers a game that year against Michigan. “Caitlin went off in the fourth quarter, scoring 25 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range over the final 10 minutes. Most of her 3-pointers were from Ypsilanti,” he recalled. “She clearly was in the zone. I remember scrolling through Twitter and nearly everyone in my feed was like, ‘Get to Big Ten Network NOW.’ Her effort was mentioned on social media by professional athletes and celebrities as well as making national highlight shows.”

ESPN reporter Holly Rowe has been as present as anyone in the media for Clark’s ascendance. “I was at the Indiana game [in Clark’s junior year] where she hit a wild buzzer beater,” Rowe said. “I went to an NBA game the next day and everyone was asking me about her and the shot.”

An Enormous Stage

The regular season is for the serious fan. The NCAA tournament is for the general public. In the 2023 tournament, Clark averaged 31.8 points, 10 assists and 5.2 rebounds in taking the Hawkeyes to the title game, including a 41-point triple-double in the regional final against Louisville and another 41-point effort against No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in the semis. She also broke Sheryl Swoopes’ record for most points in a single NCAA tournament.

Perhaps the most compelling two hours of sports of the year came in the Iowa-LSU title game. The broadcast racked up 9.9 million viewers, making it the most viewed N.C.A.A. women’s basketball final in television history. The Clark effect was tangible and profitable. In addition, the battle with LSU star Angel Reese was made for sports debate shows and they dined out on it. With both Clark and Reese returning for their senior years, the story continues. Sports fans left Clark’s junior season wanting a rematch.

An Encore

One sort of phenom blazes across the sky before fading out. The more lasting kind teases us with their talent—and then sticks around for a while. And Clark’s senior season at Iowa has felt, at times, like a legacy rock act’s cross-country tour. ESPN, FOX, and NBC have all set ratings records. Rowe has noticed how home and road games have become fan pilgrimages. “I met a woman who drove from Arkansas to Lincoln, Nebraska, over 1,000 miles so her three little girls could watch Caitlin in person. A father from Canada who flew to Minneapolis with his 11-year-old daughter. Every single game, there is another story of sacrifice and fandom”

A Changing Media

Phenoms have a way of arriving at moments of media evolution. (Think again of Steph Curry, rising in tandem with NBA Twitter.) Clark has her own sort of influence on the forces that cover her. In a striking break with tradition, Clark—not her coach—often does the broadcast interview heading into halftime. To put it bluntly, this…never happens. Nick Saban does the halftime interview, not his QB. But the networks asked for Clark, and Iowa has obliged.

Killer Merch

Every phenom needs to move product. “We have witnessed a dramatic increase in demand for Iowa women’s basketball merchandise. From three years ago, we have expanded our merchandise offerings for women’s basketball-specific items from six options three years ago to over 20 options this season and counting,” said JJ Corkhill, GM of official Iowa retailer The Black and Gold Shop. “Current assortment for women’s basketball apparel is larger than all sports except for football.”

A Promise of More to Come

The NCAA Tournament will, at some point, end Caitlin Clark’s historic run as a college basketball player. The day before her final Iowa home game, she announced that she will pass on another year in Iowa City for the WNBA. The Indiana Fever hold the No. 1 pick in the draft—and, already, their ticket sales are soaring. It’s at this point that our phenom framework begins to break down. Because plenty of sports phenoms get hot, get covered, and get lost to the next big thing. But as Clark prepares to take her show to the pros, it’s much more likely that her fans and the media roll with her and keep this ride going. I think the best comparison might be to Wayne Gretzky’s 1988 trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings? The Great One came to the US—and new franchises in the States came with him. The WNBA may not expand in number of teams, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Clark juiced the game’s overall profile in a similar way. Either way, the Caitlin Clark show isn’t over—it’s just changing stages.

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