Women’s college basketball is going through a moment. The NCAA needs sixteen

Shortly after the women’s NCAA Tournament set viewership and attendance records last year when LSU defeated Iowa for the championship, the Charlotte Sports Foundation began making calls to consider hosting a major women’s basketball game to kick off the 2023-24 season.

The first call? Iowa. If she got Caitlin Clark into the Charlotte building, she knew the tickets would sell out. But the group also wanted a second Final Four team, preferably a more local one, where fans could drive to the event. So the next call was made to Virginia Tech.

Made. Coach Kenny Brooks and his Hokies would happily kick off the season with a high-caliber matchup.

Danny Morrison, executive director of the foundation, was excited about how quickly two Final Four teams took advantage of the opportunity to play a competitive game early in the season. But then came what he hoped would be the most difficult decision: a title sponsor. Someone who would spend a lot of money on this game.

Morrison called Ally Financial. Within 24 hours they agreed. A game, one that historically would have taken a year to plan, took just a few days to come together.

“Normally it doesn’t happen like this,” Morrison said of the speed and ease with which everything came together.

But you usually don’t have the peak of 13 million viewers in the women’s national title game either. And you usually don’t have stars like women’s basketball has now with Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers and so many others. You usually don’t have that many elite teams in a single season.

But that’s the thing about the singular, meaningful moments and special season that elevate a sport. They are rare. They usually don’t happen. And the only way for this to happen more frequently is to take advantage of the opportunities within those seasons.

Opportunities like a massive game in Charlotte between Final Four teams. Opportunities like South Carolina and Notre Dame kick off the season in Paris. Opportunities like Iowa putting 94 feet of hardwood in a football stadium and raising the alarm.


Iowa women’s basketball sets attendance record with game at Kinnick Stadium

Normally it doesn’t happen like that.

With each of those opportunities, the teams and players have shown that they will rise to the moment. Equally important, the stakeholders around those teams and games also rose to the moment.

Because the Charlotte game won’t happen unless Iowa coach Lisa Bluder and Brooks agree to play a tough game before their teams have solidified. It won’t happen unless Morrison gets Ally to foot the bill. The exact amount of Ally’s sponsorship is unknown. Each team received $150,000 and Iowa received an additional $50,000 for travel, according to the Charlotte Sports Foundation, although it did not say whether Ally paid all of that cost.

And he doesn’t get the attention he deserves if Georgia Amoore, one of many elite point guards this season, doesn’t go toe-to-toe with Clark.

Paris won’t happen unless Lea Miller-Tooley, president of Complete Sports Management (which organized the game), thinks outside the box about hosting the first college basketball game in Paris. Or if Dawn Staley and Niele Ivey aren’t on board to take their teams to the other side of the world and test themselves on that stage. And it doesn’t look the way it deserves unless ESPN sends its best team across the Atlantic to broadcast from there (and not remotely) from Bristol.

And 56,000 people don’t show up on a cold Sunday in Iowa City with Clark center stage unless the university and its athletics department endorse the event.

Women’s college basketball is at an inflection point and many people within the sport see it that way.

But for this season to squeeze out all the potential that exists for the sport to grow as much as possible, more people need to see this season for what it is: a great opportunity to make things happen.

Charlie Baker, the president of the NCAA, and his team have a big decision ahead of them: Will the organization separate the women’s tournament from the other championships and sell the television rights as its own entity? The (nonprofit) NCAA, which runs college football like a Fortune 500 company, stands to make an additional $100 million, presumably, by doing so. Going into this season, I should have called all the Top 25 coaches to build relationships and understand how they view the sport, where they see their fit within the ecosystem of American sports. The NCAA should have had a summit this summer with the game’s major stakeholders to figure out how to capitalize on women’s basketball this season.

(Narrator: They didn’t have that summit.)

Big Ten Commissioner Tony Pettiti, who is in his first year on the job, inherited a conference that is home to Clark, arguably the most recognizable athlete in college sports. Next year, the Big Ten will become the first bicoastal conference in the country that, in addition to Clark, will have some of the game’s brightest young stars who could take his place. Few people hold more vital keys to the growth of women’s college basketball than Petitti. You should have a team that studies how stars, specifically in women’s college basketball, are shaped and created by exposure through social media and traditional media, and you should prepare to apply those lessons to Ohio State’s Cotie McMahon and USC’s JuJu Watkins and whoever comes next. to boost the Big Ten.

(Narrator: There is no team studying Clark.)

ESPN, which smartly moved the national title game to ABC last season, giving the title showdown more scope, will keep the national championship on ABC. But it won’t be played in prime time, and the company opted not to move the Final Four matchups to ABC as well.

(Narrator: The sigh)

Women’s basketball is potentially the fastest growing entity in college sports. There are fans waiting to be let in, and the people who have the keys have to open those doors left and right. Because the players and teams have proven that once the fans are in the stadiums or watching on television, there will be a show. Early results are promising for another huge year.

On the first day of the NCAA season, South Carolina-Notre Dame was the most-watched college basketball game of the day, even when it aired during an unfavorable 1 p.m. window (to account for the time change) . Unranked NC State’s upset of No. 2 UConn on Sunday, which ESPN aired on ABC, drew 625,000 viewers. That ranks as ABC’s fourth-best regular-season women’s college basketball game.

Already this season, the number 1 and 2 teams have fallen. South Carolina, a program known for its dominant defensive performances, has released multiple 100-point games.

On Sunday night, in a decisive 32-point victory over then-No. 9 Indiana, Stanford, amid the Pac-12’s swan song, reminded everyone why nothing should be ruled out and exactly why the The game’s winningest coach resides in Palo Alto.

This season there are a lot of stars and elite teams. There is no shortage of stories about sports personalities. The conversation is full of enthusiasm.

And no, it usually doesn’t happen like that.

This season could be the one that changes this sport.

If so many people are tuning in and showing up to see Caitlin Clark, the least women’s basketball stakeholders can do is follow the example of its brightest star: shoot the 3 logo.

(Caitlin Clark Photo: G Fiume/Getty Images)