Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is the biggest show in all of women’s basketball

CHARLOTTE — A television camera operator peers around the curtain that leads to the Spectrum Center floor. He turns back with an announcement for his utility man holding the cable, and everyone else standing around this impossibly dark hallway waiting to see greatness up close.

“Yo!” he says. “She’s coming!”

From the arena can be heard the swell of squeals from the young kids still riled up past their bedtime after witnessing a 44-point performance from college basketball’s most important player. Three other photographers behind a black velvet rope silently focus on getting the shots to feed the insatiable appetite for more and more content.

Yes, Caitlin Clark is coming, down the hallway and into the sanctum of the visiting team’s locker room, and I have to imagine anyone in the WNBA who noticed the scene at this neutral-site game in November — where 15,196 energized fans showed up for the Ally Tipoff — would love to hear that announcement soon.

Who knows if this season at Iowa is The Last Dance, Caitlin’s version. She’s a four-year senior on the cusp of becoming her game’s career leading scorer, and she epitomizes what’s possible for a college star in the name, image and likeness era with a team of sports agents and sponsorship deals with Nike, Bose, State Farm, just to name a few. But because Clark, 21, started college during the covid year and began playing in front of cardboard cutouts filling the seats, she still has a year of eligibility remaining.

“She stays in the moment. We always talk [about it] a lot: Be where your feet are. She’s being here right now,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said. “She doesn’t have to make a decision right now. I wouldn’t want her making a decision right now. I mean, I want her to be able to enjoy the year and then decide at the end of the year.”

In Iowa’s pregame hype video that could rival an NBA team’s production, Hawkeye players are featured on a stage, not a court, along with orchestra musicians. When Clark appears in the video, she does that thing where she spreads her arms — the “Are you not entertained?” poseand Hawkeye fans watching roar as though they’re witnessing swagger for the first time. The hype video ends: Welcome To The Show.

Whether in video or on the floor, Clark is The Show. When her No. 3 Hawkeyes are flowing just right, she’s the conductor of their symphony. The ball zips. Players move. Clark herself keeps shooting, even through cold spells. And if Hawkeyes fans are lucky, she’ll seize the moment and spread her arms.

“I grew up a fan of women’s basketball and I’ve always understood there’s really great players in this game that’s really fun to watch,” Clark said. “Players are very skilled, and at the same time, they’re some of my biggest role models and the people that I looked up to. So it’s cool to see myself on the stage now. It’s very hard to wrap my head around the environments that I get to play in, but I never take it for granted. We’re very far from home, and we still have an incredible crowd and many young girls that are screaming our names.”

On Thursday night, Clark missed plenty — going 5 for 16 from beyond the arc and 13 of 31 overall — but that did not ruin The Show. Although there is a hefty Virginia Tech alumni base in Charlotte that came to cheer on the No. 8 Hokies, the Hawkeye faithful who love to turn any city into Iowa City, powered the arena with the kind of juice that was missing the night before, when the hometown Hornets played the Washington Wizards. That Wednesday night NBA matchup drew 14,267 fans, according to the official box score, a number that appeared to be aspirational, judging by all the empty seats dotting the 200 level.

For Iowa women’s hoops, however, 15,000 is just a normal Thursday. Every night in Iowa City is a sellout. Every road game is an event. Clark is the main draw, and that’s the kind of show the WNBA could use.

This season, the WNBA boasted of a 16-percent attendance increase from the previous year. Great news and all, until realizing the league’s average attendance was 6,615, less than half the capacity of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Clark’s current home gym.

Wherever Clark goes, the crowd comes along. The same for LSU senior Angel Reese, who already has all the cache and star power an athlete can ask for without the backing of a professional team. The face of the reigning national champs, Reese also will play all of her home games in front of sellout crowds at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, capacity 13,215. Conversely, the Las Vegas Aces, the best team in the WNBA, played their home games in front of an average of 9,551 fans last season.

Enticing as it might be, let’s pause before making the leap that Clark and Reese’s arrival would be for the WNBA what a young Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were for the NBA. That comparison has been made before — when Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins entered the league in 2008 as the Nos. 1 and 3 draft picks, respectively. But their college rivalry did not translate into mainstream interest in the pros. So will brand loyalty indeed follow Clark to the WNBA?

“Man, I hope so. I really do,” Bluder earnestly told me after her team’s 80-76 win over Virginia Tech. “You’re seeing some teams starting to really draw well now. It depends on kind of the team, right? But I think Caitlin — everybody wants to watch her play, and so I think it will definitely help. I don’t know if it’ll be at the extreme level that we get at Iowa, but we have some pretty loyal Iowa fans.”

Here’s a half-baked idea: The WNBA is growing, and since the proposed expansion team in Portland has been put on hold, the league should plant its next franchise in Iowa City, give the upstart franchise the first pick in the 2024 draft, sign Clark to one of those 25-year contracts the Los Angeles Lakers gave a young Magic and watch the women’s game blossom into a full-fledged Garden of Eden. There. That should grow the league.

Now, back to the real world and the bowels of Spectrum Center, Clark is aware of all the attention and reflexively lowers her head to the floor. Even for the country’s most famous college hooper, it’s still weird to be tracked down a hallway by a camera operator. But she knows she can’t avoid the attention, only manage it.

Yes, Caitlin Clark is coming, and wherever she goes, women’s basketball is better for it.

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