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Why March Madness belongs to women: star players and big audiences make it a tournament to watch

There is always a sign.

Last spring, I first noticed something special was happening when I couldn’t walk half a block in Dallas without running into large groups of Iowa or Carolina fans. South. There were also my friends at home who, for the first time, planned their weekend around the women’s NCAA tournament games instead of the men’s. And all the sports radio channels were discussing Caitlin Clark And Angel Reese. My spidey senses tingled.

I could feel in my bones that the sport was ready for a watershed moment, even though I couldn’t have imagined that nearly 10 million people would tune in for the Iowa-LSU national title game, shattering the previous record. audience of a women’s match. basketball match. But I could tell that the barrier of apathy had been broken; these women, these end-of-match taunts, the sport itself – all of this would be talked about for days, weeks and months to come.

I have the same feeling right now.

Another giant leap is coming for a sport that should get used to these gains. As we head into March Madness, it’s the women’s side of the tournament that takes center stage. It’s the female stars who shine the most. This is the women’s game with the most intriguing storylines.

And… it’s not even debatable!

“We are on a constant slope” U.S.C. coach Lindsay Gottlieb said on my SiriusXM show Sunday night. “You combine the star power in our game, the fact that you have some of these established stars that fans have really built a relationship with like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink – and then you add in this incredibly dynamic freshman class.

“What we’re seeing is that women’s basketball is a really marketable entity. People love it. We are in a space where there is an incredible amount of enthusiasm. … This is something that is truly a movement.

We saw these incredibly long lines of fans waiting to get into arenas – any arena – to see Clark play. More than 3 million people watched Clark’s Hawkeyes beat Nebraska in overtime during the Big Ten championship game on CBS, with an audience peaking at 4.45 million (!) in overtime. Clark is so ubiquitous that she was brought up multiple times during this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend broadcast… while her State Farm commercials aired during her breaks.

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ESPN recently announced that it was the most-watched women’s college basketball regular season in more than 15 years, with viewership increasing 37% across ESPN platforms compared to last season. His SEC championship last Sunday between LSU And Caroline from the south drew nearly 2 million viewers, and the Pac-12 title game the same day between USC and Stanford – the No. 1 seed Trojans and No. 2 seed Cardinal in the upcoming tournament – ​​drew more than 1.4 million viewers, an increase of 461% from last season’s championship . These three title matches outclassed three NBA weekend games.

With more eyeballs, fans new and old become more familiar. Now they only know the stars by their first names. Caitlin. Angel. Paige. JuJu. Cam. Hannah.

Fast! Walk into your neighborhood sports bar and ask someone to name five men’s basketball players who will be playing this week. Can they do it? I’m not sure I’d bet a beer on that.

Recently, on his KG Certified podcast, Kevin Garnett made the same argument. “This is the first time I’ve watched college basketball where I know more girls than boys,” he said. “This is the first time that women’s basketball has taken precedence over men’s basketball. Women’s college basketball is…electric. This blows the guy’s game out of the water.

Of course, that won’t matter much when we’re sitting on our couches or bar stools for 14 hours straight on Thursday and 14 hours straight on Friday. We’ll still watch the men’s matches, falling in love with the Cinderellas even if they break our supports. We will be distressed by a coach’s horrible handling of the end-of-game clock. And we’ll continue to watch the men because theirs have long been the best playoffs in sports.

But parity on the women’s side has changed the situation somewhat. The same goes for the fleeting nature of men’s college basketball; The one-and-dones associated with the transfer portal have made it harder than ever for players to become household names in the sport on a national scale. And many of the biggest male stars — his Hall of Fame coaches — retired and left the sport without his clout.

And that opened a door to women’s football. It’s the sport with players who stay three or four years and grow before our eyes. This is the sport with its Hall of Fame coaches still leading the way — many recognize themselves by first name: Dawn, Geno, Tara, Kim — even as parity increases and college athletics evolves under their feet.

So this week I’ll be more interested in Clark’s final tournament run and if she’ll make it. Hawk eyes to another Final Four. I would like to see JuJu Watkins, the freshman phenom who revitalized USC’s women’s program, on the big stage for the first time. I would like to pretend to have half the energy in my daily life that our LadyIt is Hannah Hidalgo made on defense in a single match. I’ll be on ants and needles waiting to see if South Carolina can complete a perfect season after falling short a year ago.

There will undoubtedly be the usual clichés of Neanderthals, men who always try to pretend that “no one” watches women’s basketball despite all the evidence to the contrary. These views are now being criticized by fathers who bond with their daughters by taking them to games and by mothers of little boys who wear Clark jerseys and don’t think there’s anything strange about idolizing an athlete. feminine. These men can cling to their silly, outdated little punchlines that no longer make sense, while we watch captivating basketball and join this rocket as it rises.

“Eyes were opened last year, and we just rode that momentum, and it never stopped,” Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey told me Sunday. “Great teams, great players: women’s football is simply hot. »

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / Athleticism; Photos by Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark, Hannah Hidalgo: Eakin Howard / Adam Bettcher / Icon Sportswire, Joseph Weiser / Icon Sportswire)



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