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  • Writer's pictureRyan Magill

Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese: The NBA’s Past, The WNBA’s Present, and the Future for Women’s Sports

Without question, 2023 was the year for women’s sports. Record-breaking attendance, skyrocketing viewership, and nearly triple the media coverage challenged many longstanding opinions about their success and viability. The WNBA, as arguably the most watched women’s professional sports league in the world, is at the forefront of this changing landscape. But even though 2023 brought the league its highest viewership in 21 years and its highest total attendance in 13 years, the best may still be yet to come for the WNBA.[1] The growing interest in women’s college basketball, brought on by superstars like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese, is further proof that a Golden Age for all women’s basketball may be just over the horizon. But for that to happen, the WNBA must solve its historical problem: capitalizing on incoming talent to continually build sustainable growth.


The WNBA’s solution may be rooted in history. Many have already noted the staggering similarities between Clark and Reese’s budding “rivalry” and the beginnings of Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Rivalry in the 1980s.[2] The NBA’s decision to market “The Rivalry” as the centerpiece of the league capitalized on Bird and Magic’s talent, blazing the NBA’s path to modern dominance.[3] But where some may see the “rivalry” and its marketing potential as the WNBA’s “stars aligning” moment, others may see possible issues stemming from trying to impose the Bird/Magic Rivalry unto Clark and Reese. Could Reese and Clark ever hold a candle to Bird and Magic? Would such a “rivalry” work to accomplish what the WNBA needs? Should the WNBA go through with any such “rivalry,” and what would it say about the future of women’s sports moving forward?


Could Clark vs. Reese be Bird vs. Magic?


Of the three questions, this one might be the easiest to answer. While Clark and Reese are almost certainly the two biggest stars in women’s college basketball, there is a very real argument that they are the two biggest stars in ALL of women’s basketball.


Starting with the reigning National Player of the Year, Caitlin Clark has scorched her opponents with her ability to shoot from anywhere on the court to the tune of 28.3 PPG over her career, while leading the nation in both points per game (32.8) and assists per game (8.5).[4] [5]Clark put the world on notice last season when she set the single NCAA Tournament record for points scored (for both men and women) at 191 in March 2023, which included the NCAA Tournament’s first ever 40-point triple-double.[6] Now leading the #4 team in the nation in February 2024, Clark has become the Division 1 all-time career leading scorer for women’s basketball and will soon become the leading career scorer for all Division 1 college basketball.[7]


As for the 2023 National Championship ring, you will find it proudly on the “Bayou Barbie’s” finger. After transferring from Maryland, Angel Reese dominated her opponents with a remarkable 34 double-doubles in 36 games last season (an NCAA single season record) along with an SEC record for rebounds in a season.[8] Reese capped off her amazing season with the 2023 NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award.[9] Leading LSU’s #13 ranked team, who upgraded their championship roster with the top transfers in women’s college basketball (Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow), Reese has continued her winning run in a tough SEC, featuring current #1 ranked South Carolina.[10]


Clearly, Clark and Reese can hoop, and the fans surely know it. Because while the 2023 WNBA Finals set records with an average 728,000 viewers for each game, the 2023 NCAA Division 1 Women’s Basketball playoffs blew that out of the water: averaging 1.2 million viewers in the Sweet 16, 2.2 million in the Elite Eight, and 6.5 million viewers in the Final Four. This historic playoff bracket culminated in an astounding 9.9 million total viewers for the National Championship game where Reese’s Tigers defeated Clark’s Hawkeyes.[11] [12]


Professional league championships do not often get “outwatched” by college championships in the same sport. It did, however, notably happen to the NBA as well in 1979. The NBA Finals that year between the Seattle Supersonics and the Washington Bullets only registered a 7.2 Nielsen rating, whereas the 1979 NCAA Championship Game between the Indiana State Sycamores and the Michigan State Spartans drew 40 million viewers and an incredible 24.1 Nielsen rating. The leading scorers for those college teams were Bird and Magic, respectively.[13]


Is it a stretch to compare Clark and Reese to Hall of Famers like Bird and Magic? Maybe, but the legends started somewhere. Reese and Clark look like surefire superstars in the making, and they have the ultra-competitiveness from which rivalries are born. Take for instance the final seconds of the National Championship, where Reese turned Clark’s own Final Four celebration against her with the clock winding down.[14] If there are two college athletes (male or female) who could live up the hype of a Bird and Magic comparison in their professional sport, you would be hard pressed to find two better choices than Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark.


Would The WNBA Go Through With Such a Plan?


Of the WNBA’s historic struggles, the main issue has always been attendance and viewership.[15] Even with its most watched regular season in 21 years, a 42% year-to-year viewership increase in the WNBA Draft, and ranking first internationally among all professional women’s leagues in total attendance at over 1.5 million in 2023 (with the league’s highest total attendance in 13 years), the most recent WNBA Finals didn’t average more viewers than the Sweet Sixteen of the women’s basketball NCAA Tournament.[16] [17] [18]


After facing a similar dilemma with the 1979 National Championship, NBA executives in the 1980s adopted the radical plan to make Bird and Magic the faces of the league. Fully aware of how popular the two were as evidenced by NCAA Championship game viewership, the NBA made sure that every game weekend featured the Celtics or Lakers. The NBA also sent Bird and Magic highlight plays to the then-brand-new show on ESPN called SportsCenter. Since fans seemed to be so interested in Bird and Magic, the executives decided to saturate the market with everything Bird and Magic.[19]


The plan was a rousing success. The TV ratings of the NBA Finals in the 1980s went from 6.7 in 1981 to a staggering 15.9 in 1987.[20] The latter represented over 24 million households on average watching the third Finals meeting between Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers. Attendance also grew for the league, averaging just over 10,000 per game in 1982 before rising to well over 14,000 per game in 1989. [21]


All signs point to the conclusion that Clark and Reese could do the same. Clark and the Hawkeyes drew well over 55,000 fans to an exhibition game at Iowa’s football stadium in October 2023, and practically every home and away game sets an attendance record. Meanwhile, Reese and the LSU Tigers have routinely sold out the Pete Maravich Center, and are also breaking attendance records at away games like their January 7th bout with Ole Miss. [22] [23]


Clark and Reese have already one-upped young Magic and Bird in terms of viewership, in no small part due to their access to social media (Caitlin Clark has over 1 million Instagram followers and Angel Reese has over 2.6 million) and Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) opportunities that Bird and Magic never had.[24] [25]


The simple answer is the WNBA absolutely could use the Bird/Magic blueprint for Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. Like Bird and Magic’s college matchup, Clark and Reese are already driving interest in their home and away games all on their own. Like Bird and Magic’s placement in advertisements, Clark and Reese have already proven to be highly marketable both on and off the court.[26] Like Bird and Magic on SportsCenter, the WNBA can capitalize on Clark and Reese through the growing media accessibility to the women’s game.


For all the good that may come of this plan, it is critical to identify that both the Bird/Magic Rivalry and a Clark/Reese Rivalry are inescapably tied to the race of their players. Most modern discussions about the Bird/Magic Rivalry acknowledge how racial tensions in the 80s served as the undertones for the Rivalry’s popularity.[27] Unfortunately, Reese’s taunting of Clark in the waning seconds of the 2023 Women’s National Championship matchup (which was an appropriation of Clark’s own taunting gesture used in the Final Four days earlier) became the subject of intense media attention (some good and some bad) as well as a discussion on how public response to the gesture was perceived relative to the race of each competitor.[28] What should have been a time for celebration was immediately hijacked by a discussion about racial relations, and ultimately showcased how the tension remains.


The “It Factor”: Should The WNBA Try This?


In sports and in life, we oftentimes hear about the “It Factor.” Some people just have “it,” the unexplainable ability to do incredible things seemingly at will. In sports, that discussion is had all the time. A player may have “it” because they can make that unbelievable throw or that miracle shot. Another player may have “it” because they can rally the team when they need to most late in the game. Some players have “it” because they do things we have never seen before.


Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had “it.” They made shots nobody thought they could, won games nobody thought they could, and became legends when some never thought they would. The NBA recognized this very early on, used every tool they had to let the world know Bird and Magic had “it,” and that made the NBA into what it is today. Their rivalry, despite its racial undercurrent, may very well have demonstrated a completely different truth: the “it” factor does not care about race.


This thought exercise is entirely predicated on simple reality: Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese have “it.” They are dominating the competition at the college level, breaking records with practically every game they play. They are destroying the longstanding preconceptions about viewership and attendance at women’s sporting events. They are using social media and NIL to challenge the notions about how much women’s athletes can earn relative to their male counterparts. They are using their platforms to speak out on issues they see and to inspire girls of all backgrounds everywhere they go. These two young women are not just at the forefront of their sport, they are really at the forefront of this movement in women’s sports. While they are reaffirming the Bird/Magic truth that the “it” factor does not discriminate by race, Clark and Reese are now proving to the world that the “it” factor does not discriminate by gender either.


It seems clear that the WNBA should go through with the blueprint. A Clark/Reese Rivalry does not reduce them to a “remake” of Bird and Magic. Rather, a rivalry is recognition that they are elite players whose careers will inevitably intersect with each other again in the near future. More than likely, the 2023 Women’s National Championship is not the last high-stakes matchup we will see between Clark and Reese.


The Bird/Magic Rivalry was not a success just because more fans started watching and showing up. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s popularity (and accessibility) was the reason they inspired the generation that followed them. One such player was Michael Jordan, whose own play inspired Kobe Bryant, who inspired LeBron James, and the cycle continues because the NBA grew, and fans kept watching those players with the “it” factor. Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese have already begun inspiring girls around the country, and that is not going to change as they move up to the WNBA. Rather, the WNBA can give them the chance to inspire even more future superstars. One day, we all might look back on Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark the same way we do about Magic and Bird, revering them for what they meant to generations of women’s superstars that followed them.


Sources:


[1] WNBA, WNBA 2023 Season Delivers with Record-Breaking Viewership, Attendance and Digital Engagement, WNBA.com (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024). https://www.wnba.com/news/2023-season-record-breaking-success-recap#:~:text=Regular%2Dseason%20games%20on%20ION,in%2013%20years%20(1%2C587%2C488).

[2] Sports Illustrated. “Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark could be the next Magic and Bird!” YouTube, 5 April 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DahezfMBXSw. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[3] Steve Aschburner, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson lifted the NBA with heated rivalry, NBA.com (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024). https://www.nba.com/news/magic-johnson-larry-bird-rivalry-40th-anniversary

[4] Big 10 Conference. “Iowa's Caitlin Clark Sweeps National Player of the Year Awards.” Big Ten Conference, 18 April 2023, https://bigten.org/news/2023/4/18/general-iowas-caitlin-clark-sweeps-national-player-of-the-year-awards.aspx. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[5] "Caitlin Clark - Stats." ESPN, 13 Feb. 2024, www.espn.com/womens-college-basketball/player/stats/_/id/4433403/caitlin-clark. Accessed 13 Feb. 2024.

[6] Codi Childs, Caitlin Clark's record-breaking NCAA tournament run, by the numbers, NCAA.com (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024). https://www.ncaa.com/news/basketball-women/article/2023-04-01/caitlin-clarks-record-breaking-ncaa-tournament-run-numbers

[7] Jordan Freiman, Iowa's Caitlin Clark breaks NCAA women's basketball scoring record, CBS News (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024). https://www.cbsnews.com/news/caitlin-clark-ncaa-womens-basketball-scoring-record-iowa/

[8] Peter Rauterkus, Angel Reese scores 34th double-double of season, breaking NCAA record, LSU Reveille (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024). https://www.lsureveille.com/sports/angel-reese-scores-34th-double-double-of-season-breaking-ncaa-record/article_853674ce-d19a-11ed-a38f-0317ae4b0fc0.html

[9] Baer, Jack. “Final Four: LSU's Angel Reese named Most Outstanding Player after record double-double run.” Yahoo Sports, 2 April 2023, https://sports.yahoo.com/final-four-lsus-angel-reese-named-most-outstanding-player-after-record-double-double-run-220557503.html. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[10] Cory Diaz, SEC women's basketball power rankings: South Carolina sights set on SEC tournament 1 seed, The Daily Advertiser (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024). https://www.theadvertiser.com/story/sports/college/lsu/2024/02/20/sec-womens-basketball-power-rankings-south-carolina-undefeated-lsu-lady-vols/72626949007/

[11] WNBA, WNBA 2023 Season Delivers with Record-Breaking Viewership, Attendance and Digital Engagement, WNBA.com (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024). https://www.wnba.com/news/2023-season-record-breaking-success-recap#:~:text=Regular%2Dseason%20games%20on%20ION,in%2013%20years%20(1%2C587%2C488).

[12] Kimberly Echlepp, ESPN Platforms Set Unparalleled Records with NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball, ESPN Press Room (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024).

[13] The Recount, How Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s Rivalry Shook the NBA, Yahoo! Finance (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024). https://finance.yahoo.com/news/magic-johnson-larry-bird-rivalry-130000438.html

[14] Selbe, Nick. “Angel Reese Explains Why She Taunted Caitlin Clark.” Sports Illustrated, 2 April 2023, https://www.si.com/college/2023/04/02/angel-reese-explains-caitlin-clark-taunt. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[15] Sandomir, Richard. “After Two Decades, W.N.B.A. Still Struggling for Relevance (Published 2016).” The New York Times, 28 May 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/28/sports/basketball/after-two-decades-wnba-still-struggling-for-relevance.html. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[16] WNBA, WNBA 2023 Season Delivers with Record-Breaking Viewership, Attendance and Digital Engagement, WNBA.com (last visited Feb. 21st, 2024). https://www.wnba.com/news/2023-season-record-breaking-success-recap#:~:text=Regular%2Dseason%20games%20on%20ION,in%2013%20years%20(1%2C587%2C488).

[17] Deitsch, Richard, and Ben Pickman. “2023 WNBA Draft draws largest viewership since 2004: Why were the numbers so high?” The Athletic, 11 April 2023, https://theathletic.com/4402939/2023/04/11/wnba-draft-viewership-2023/. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[18] Darvin, Lindsey. “A Huge Summer For Women’s Sport Viewership And Attendance.” Forbes, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lindseyedarvin/2023/09/15/a-huge-summer-for-womens-sport-viewership-and-attendance/?sh=4fab420f185f. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[19] MacMullan, Jackie. “How the NBA Tapped Into the Bird and Magic Machine.” The Ringer, 25 March 2022, https://www.theringer.com/2022/3/25/22994381/icons-club-larry-bird-magic-johnson-david-stern. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[20] Bechtel, Mark. "National Basketball Association Nielsen Ratings." Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, 13 Feb. 2024, en-academic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/2207615. Accessed 13 Feb. 2024.

[21] “NBA Home Attendance Totals.” NBA Home Attendance Totals, The Association for Professional Basketball Research, https://www.apbr.org/attendance.html. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[23] Diaz, Cory. "'They Came Here to See Us:' LSU Women's Basketball Unfazed by Ole Miss Record Crowd." Daily Advertiser, 7 Jan. 2024, www.thegazette.com/iowa-basketball/iowa-womens-basketball-makes-it-12-straight-wins-with-a-103-69-romp-at-rutgers/. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

[24] “Caitlin Clark (@caitlinclark22) • Instagram photos and videos.” Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/caitlinclark22/?hl=en. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[25] “ANGEL REESE (@angelreese10) • Instagram photos and videos.” Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/angelreese10/?hl=en. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[26] On3. “On3 NIL 100.” On3.com, https://www.on3.com/nil/rankings/player/nil-100/. Accessed 21 February 2024.

[27] Pells, Eddie. "Fights, Drugs, Racial Tension: ‘70s Spelled Trouble for NBA." Associated Press, 16 Dec. 2021, apnews.com/article/nfl-nba-entertainment-sports-racial-injustice-2b239f949b4e9569aa90ab69d7d083bb. Accessed 21 Feb. 2024.

[28] Freeman, Mike. “Angel Reese's taunt of Iowa's Caitlin Clark shows double standard.” USA Today, 3 April 2023, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/mike-freeman/2023/04/03/angel-reeses-taunt-iowas-caitlin-clark-shows-double-standard/11591498002/. Accessed 21 February 2024.

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