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March Madness is coming to a peak. Will collegiate basketball superstar Caitlin Clark maintain her momentum as she moves on to the WNBA?

Caitlin Clark reacting to the crowd.
Win or lose as March Madness comes to a close, Iowa guard Caitlin Clark has made women’s basketball history. What will she do for the WNBA, her next stop? (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

University of Iowa superstar point guard Caitlin Clark built up a fan base and viewership that has made her something akin to the Taylor Swift of college basketball.

But after her college career ends this weekend — with or without a national title — will her fans follow Clark to the Women’s National Basketball Association, where the 22-year-old is predicted to be the top draft pick for the Indiana Fever? 

“That’s the big question,” says Pamela Wojnar, an associate teaching professor in Northeastern’s master of sports leadership program, and a former college basketball coach.

Loyal collegiate fans vs. WNBA fans

Clark is sure to continue to be a big draw with her eye-catching long shots, ease with spectators, work ethic and team mentality, Wojnar says.

“I think she’s going to do a lot for the WNBA,” Wojnar says of the all-time collegiate scoring champion. “She has elevated the game in a lot of ways.”

But the WNBA doesn’t have the built-in fan base associated with college basketball, so it remains to be seen how soon Clark’s momentum could translate to increased viewership of women’s professional basketball and higher pay for her WNBA colleagues, Wojnar says.

“There’s  a huge difference between pro and women’s college basketball in that people follow their colleges,” Wojnar says.

“The biggest test is, can we keep the ball rolling? When you look in the stands of women’s college games, you see a lot of little girls. Well, in order to get the little girls there, the parents have to bring them. The 5-year-old isn’t getting in the car by himself or herself.”

The WNBA had its most-watched regular season in 21 years in 2023 and its highest total attendance in 13 years. While WNBA attendance is on the rise, average attendance is about a third of the NBA, about 6,500 for the WNBA compared to 18,000 for the NBA. 

And WNBA viewership, which is also increasing, hasn’t come close to the record-setting 12.3 million people who watched the Elite Eight game between Clark’s Hawkeyes and the LSU Tigers. 

ESPN says it was the most-watched college basketball game of all time on its platforms and pulled the channel’s second-highest audience for any basketball game since 2012.

Clark gave the viewers what they came for, with 41 points and 12 assists in the April 1 game, beating LSU 94-87. 

On Friday, Clark and the Hawkeyes face off against UConn during the NCAA’s Final Four for a chance to play for the national title on Sunday.  

Leveling the court with social media — and endorsements

Wojnar says it’s possible Clark could succeed in keeping her fans and viewership where other female pro athletes have failed due to the growing impact of social media and personal endorsements.

Clark has 1.5 million followers on social media and is making a reported $3 million in NIL deals from brands including Gatorade, State Farm, Nike and Xfinity.

NIL — which stands for name, image and likeness — allow college athletes to be compensated for endorsements and autographs. They have only been around for a few years.

Clark’s endorsement money dwarfs the WNBA rookie salary of $76,535 in 2024. The advertisements also put her in the spotlight in a way not possible for college athletes in the past, Wojnar says.

“I see her in commercials all the time,” she says.

A player of unprecedented talent

Sports writers say Clark’s shots from “well beyond the college 3-point line — the NBA line, for that matter” — is unprecedented in women’s basketball.

“Caitlin shoots from all over the court. If she’s on the court, she’s in range,” Wojnar says. But Clark’s also a team player who “makes her teammates better. You haven’t seen anybody who can pass better,” she says.

One complaint about women’s basketball is that the players don’t make as many exciting dunks as the taller men’s players, Wojnar says.

“Clark has brought showmanship to the game in a different way. It’s not all about dunking.”

“I think that has been huge. I think it’s made people realize watching women play can be exciting,” Wojnar says.

‘It’s a product’

The WNBA, which was founded in 1996, is a newcomer compared to the NBA, which started in 1949. WNBA rookies still earn just a fraction of the minimum NBA salary of $1.1 million.

“Professional sports is a product. It’s a business. It’s all about revenue generation. And if the WNBA isn’t generating revenue, it can’t pay the athletes the higher salaries,” Wojnar says.

WNBA viewership and attendance are on the rise, with the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces announcing several weeks ago it became the first WNBA team to sell out its season ticket packages. 

Wojnar says just as it took rivals Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to revitalize the flagging NBA in 1979, the WNBA would benefit from having Clark joined by rivals such as LSU’s Angel Reese, who announced she would enter the 2024 draft on Wednesday.

Young men and women both look to Clark as someone who worked hard to get where she is without the benefit of a storied sports family, Wojnar says.

“Clark is an ambassador for the sport and a role model. She stays after games for hours to sign autographs. She understands what she means for the game. That’s huge.”