South Carolina and Iowa prove if ‘given an opportunity, women’s sports just thrives’


CLEVELAND — Everyone wanted to talk about the game, which was expected after the South Carolina women’s basketball team held off Iowa for an 87-75 victory and second national championship in three years. But Dawn Staley also wanted to talk about the other game. Actually, that’s not strong enough. She was going to discuss it.

Basketball has played such an important role in her life that she protects it as fiercely as a mother would a newborn. Her love for it is matched only by her respect for it. So even as questioners asked about the Gamecocks becoming just the 10th team in NCAA Division I history to finish a season undefeated, going 38-0, Staley purposely turned the spotlight back to the person who was central in helping to make this a transformative season and inflection point in the game’s evolution.

“I don’t want to not utilize this opportunity to thank Caitlin (Clark) for what she’s done for women’s basketball,” she said of the Iowa guard whose transcendent play helped drive record viewership numbers. “Her shoulders were heavy and getting a lot of eyeballs on our game. And sometimes as a young person, it can be a bit much. But I thought she handled it with class. I hope that every step of the ladder of success that she goes, she’s able to elevate whatever room she’s in.”

Minutes earlier, Staley had elevated herself to the upper rungs of a ladder in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. She snipped the final polyester strands from the net and placed it around her neck. Then she turned each way and waved to fans.

As I later listened to her describe her feelings, Maya Angelou’s words came to mind: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

That summarizes the 2023-24 women’s basketball season for me. Years from now, I will likely forget Clark’s career points total, how many games South Carolina won, why Kim Mulkey always seemed so angry, and which players were involved in the moving screen at the end of the UConn-Iowa national semifinal. But I will never forget the sense of satisfaction derived from seeing the sport come of age.

For decades, broadcast partners and the public marginalized women’s basketball, ostensibly relegating it to the kids’ table. The calls for respect were heard but ignored. But this season was different. The women no longer asked for respect; they demanded it with the record-breaking viewership that stemmed from the genius of Clark, the high-level play of South Carolina, Iowa, UConn, LSU and others, and the storylines and grudge matches that set social media ablaze.

How far has the game come? When the Final Four was held in Tacoma, Wash., in 1988 and ’89, the local newspaper didn’t send any of its top sportswriters to cover the event. It sent a lowly community news reporter who had never staffed a major sporting event. I know because that person was me.

I was stunned there wasn’t more interest after experiencing the intensity of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt’s piercing blue eyes, the playmaking of Long Beach State guard Penny Toler, the generalship of Stanford guard Jennifer Azzi, the consistency of Tennessee forward Bridgette Gordon, and the promise of Louisiana Tech center Venus Lacy. But traction is hard to come by when broadcast rights are sold to a cable outlet that views you as an afterthought.

ESPN should be ashamed for that. The fact is, it’s not deserving of what it now has — one of the hottest products in sports. The women’s game this year attracted more viewers than the NBA Finals, World Series, college football playoffs — you name it. And while there might be a drop-off with Clark leaving for the WNBA, the chances of a significant decline seem remote at best.

The reason is the abundance of elite teams and playmaking young stars, including USC freshman JuJu Watkins, who ranked second in the country in scoring; Notre Dame freshman Hannah Hildago, who was must-see TV; and South Carolina freshmen MiLaysia Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson, who just played prominent roles in winning the Gamecocks their third national championship in franchise history. And then there is senior guard Paige Bueckers, who led Connecticut to the Final Four and should be in the running for national Player of the Year next season.

“I just want our game to grow. I don’t care if it’s us. I don’t care if it’s Caitlin. I don’t care if it’s JuJu or Hannah,” Staley said. “I just want our games to grow, no matter who it is. Because there’s a lot of people that are out there growing our game, a lot of programs out there growing our game. We need to continue to uplift them as well, as we take our game to the next level.”


Dawn Staley created South Carolina’s perfect championship season out of last year’s loss

There will be plenty of time to discuss the passing of the baton, so to speak. But Sunday was about recognizing those who, if not created this moment, unquestionably built on the momentum created in recent seasons. And Clark was at the front of the line.

Before disappearing from the dais for the final time as a college player, she reflected on the things she will remember and appreciate most — her teammates, her coaches, and her support inside and outside the program. And she will also take great pride and satisfaction that she played a part in making the women’s game top of mind.

“When I think about women’s basketball going forward, obviously it’s just going to continue to grow, whether it’s at the WNBA level, whether it’s at the college level,” Clark said. “Everybody sees it. Everybody knows. Everybody sees the viewership numbers. When you’re given an opportunity, women’s sports just kind of thrives. I think that’s been the coolest thing for me on this journey. We started our season playing in front of 55,000 people in Kinnick Stadium, and now we’re ending it playing in (front of) probably 15 million people or more on TV. It just continues to get better and better. That’s never going to stop.”

(Photo of Dawn Staley: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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