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South Carolina and Iowa prove that when given the chance, women’s sports simply thrive



South Carolina and Iowa prove that when given the chance, women's sports simply thrive

CLEVELAND – Everyone wanted to talk about the game, which was expected after the South Carolina women’s basketball team held off Iowa for an 87-75 victory and its second national championship in three years. But Dawn Staley also wanted to talk about the other game. Actually that’s not strong enough. She was to go to discuss it.

Basketball has played such an important role in her life that she protects it as fiercely as a mother would a newborn baby. Her love for it is matched only by her respect for it. So even as questioners asked if the Gamecocks would become just the 10th team in NCAA Division I history to finish a season undefeated at 38-0, Staley purposely turned the spotlight back on the person central to helping make this a transformative season. turning point in the evolution of the game.

“I don’t want to take this opportunity to thank Caitlin (Clark) for what she has done for women’s basketball,” she said of the Iowa guard whose transcendent play helped generate record television ratings. “Her shoulders were heavy and she paid a lot of attention to our game. And as a young person it can sometimes be a bit much. But I thought she handled it with class. I hope that with each step up the ladder of success, she can take the space she is in to the next level.”

A few minutes earlier, Staley had positioned himself on the top rungs of a ladder in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. She cut the last polyester threads from the net and placed them around her neck. She then turned and waved to the fans.

Later, when I heard her describe her feelings, the words of Maya Angelou came to mind: “I learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

For me, that sums up the 2023-2024 women’s basketball season. Years from now, I’ll probably forget Clark’s career points total, how many games South Carolina won, why Kim Mulkey always seemed so angry and which players were involved in the moving screen at the end of the UConn-Iowa national semifinal. But I’ll never forget the sense of satisfaction I get watching the sport mature.

For decades, broadcast partners and the public have marginalized women’s basketball, seemingly relegating it to the kid’s table. The call for respect was heard but ignored. But this season was different. The women no longer asked for respect; they demanded it with the record-breaking viewership that came from Clark’s genius, the high-level play of South Carolina, Iowa, UConn, LSU and others, and the storylines and grudge matches that set social media ablaze.

How far has the game come? When the Final Four was held in Tacoma, Washington, in 1988 and ’89, the local newspaper didn’t send any of its top sportswriters to cover the event. It sent a lowly community news reporter who had never covered a major sporting event. I know because I was that person.

I was stunned that there wasn’t more interest after experiencing the intensity of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt’s piercing blue eyes, Long Beach State guard Penny Toler’s playmaking, Stanford guard Jennifer Azzi’s generalship, Tennessee’s consistency forward Bridgette Gordon and promising Louisiana Tech center Venus Lacy. But it’s hard to gain traction when the broadcast rights are sold to a cable company that views you as an afterthought.

ESPN should be ashamed of themselves for that. The fact is that it doesn’t deserve what it has now: one of the most popular products in sports. The women’s game drew more viewers this year than the NBA Finals, the World Series, the college football playoffs, you name it. And while there may be a downturn if Clark leaves for the WNBA, the chances of a significant drop seem slim at best.

The reason is the abundance of elite teams and young stars making plays, including USC freshman JuJu Watkins, who was second in the nation in scoring; Notre Dame freshman Hannah Hildago, must-see TV; and South Carolina freshmen MiLaysia Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson, who just played prominent roles in the Gamecocks winning their third national championship in franchise history. And then there’s senior guard Paige Bueckers, who led Connecticut to the Final Four and should be in the running for National Player of the Year next season.

“I just want our game to grow. I don’t care if it’s us. I don’t care if it’s Caitlin. I don’t care if it’s JuJu or Hannah,” Staley said. “I just want our games to grow, no matter who it is. Because there are many people developing our game, there are many programs growing our game. We must also continue to improve them as we take our game to the next level.”


Dawn Staley created South Carolina’s perfect championship season from last year’s loss

There will be plenty of time to talk about passing the baton, so to speak. But Sunday was about recognizing those who, if not creating this moment, were undoubtedly building on the momentum created in recent seasons. And Clark was at the front of the line.

Before disappearing from the stage for the final time as a college player, she reflected on the things she will remember and appreciate most: her teammates, her coaches and her support inside and outside the program. And she will also feel proud and satisfied that she has played a part in putting the women’s game top of mind.

“When I think about women’s basketball in the future, obviously it’s just going to continue to grow, whether it’s at the WNBA level or whether it’s at the college level,” Clark said. “Everyone sees it. Everyone knows it. Everyone sees the ratings. Given the opportunity, women’s sports simply thrive. I think that’s the coolest thing about this journey for me. We started our season playing in front of 55,000 people at Kinnick Stadium, and now we’re ending it playing in front of probably 15 million people or more on TV. It just gets better and better. That will never stop.”

(Photo by Dawn Staley: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)