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  • IndyStar | The Indianapolis Star

    Caitlin Clark is 'the biggest star in sports right now.' And she's coming to Indiana.

    By Chloe Peterson, Indianapolis Star,


    INDIANAPOLIS — The first nine games of Caitlin Clark’s college career weren’t even on TV.

    It was November 2020, in the middle of the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hawkeyes’ five-star recruit out of West Des Moines, Iowa, was preparing for the first game of her college career against Northern Iowa. And really, there weren’t that many people there to see it — in-person or on TV. Big Ten Plus, a subscription service, streamed the games.

    As a sophomore at Iowa at the time, I covered that game for my college paper, The Daily Iowan. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was eerily quiet — the only fans allowed in the building were family members, who were masked and socially distancing as much as possible.

    Sure, there were those cardboard cutouts of fans littered across the seats, but really, those were just creepy.

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    Black curtains rolled down from the ceilings of the arena, sectioning off half of the 15,000-fan capacity. Yes, the pandemic restrictions were tight, but Jeff Linder, who has been covering the Iowa women’s basketball team for the Cedar Rapids Gazette since 2009, said those black curtains had been down at most women’s basketball games pre-pandemic anyway.

    “It was a nice, quaint, fun beat before,” Linder said. “I mean, they had Megan Gustafson and they made it to the Elite Eight and at that time, we thought ‘Boy, this is as good as it gets.’ But, you know, along comes Caitlin.”

    Clark was one of the most anticipated recruits in Iowa program history — she was ranked fourth in the nation, first in the state, and she was an immediate add to the starting lineup. But at the time, it was a local story.

    And the story was “How will Caitlin Clark replace Kathleen Doyle, the point guard who was Big Ten Player of the Year?”

    “We knew that she was a big deal as far as oh, she's a five-star, she’s fourth in the country, and you knew she was going to be good,” Linder said, “... but I remember one thing (coach Lisa) Bluder said was, 'It's exit Doyle and enter Clark,' which sounded crazy, because here's this freshman coming in and she’s got to make that kind of impact right away? But right away as a freshman, she was almost always the best player on the floor.”

    She nearly had a double-double in her college debut, totaling 27 points and eight rebounds. In those first nine untelevised games, she scored 30 points or more three times — including a 37-point showing against Minnesota — and already achieved her first career triple-double.

    Meghan McKeown, a play-by-play announcer and analyst for the Big Ten Network, was on the call for the first time Clark played on TV. McKeown’s pregame prep with players took place mostly on Zoom at that time because of COVID protocols, but even over a screen, Clark didn’t carry herself as a freshman.

    “No one had really seen her yet, because their games were kind of on streaming, kind of not,” McKeown said. “Her maturity, poise. I mean, you know how Zoom calls are, they’re kind of awkward, you don’t really know when to talk, when to go, you take away that human interaction. But she was just so smooth, we could’ve talked to her for an hour. I was so impressed and blown away just by her maturity.”

    That TV debut Jan. 9, 2021 game vs. Northwestern ended up being the worst game of Clark's college career with eight points, eight assists and two rebounds (the only time she scored fewer than 10 points). It also only pulled in 54,000 viewers on BTN.

    Three years later, in the age of NIL and household names in women’s basketball, you couldn’t imagine a game featuring Caitlin Clark having less than a million viewers.

    Name, image, and likeness became possible for student-athletes in 2021, but Clark really started her ascent into stardom ahead of her junior season in 2022. She was a finalist for the national player of the year her sophomore season, eventually losing out to 2022 national champion and eventual No. 1 pick Aliyah Boston (who will likely be her teammate in just a few hours).

    Then, ahead of her junior season, her popularity ballooned out of proportion.

    Those black curtains went up into the ceiling, staying there for the next two seasons. Iowa ranked second nationally in women’s basketball attendance during her junior season in 2022-23, averaging over 11,000 fans.

    Clark said she wanted more than anything to bring the Hawkeyes back to a Final Four. Before Clark, Iowa had only been to the Final Four once in 1993.

    Exactly 30 years later, they were back again.

    Iowa had been close to the final weekend of the tournament before. Gustafson led the Hawkeyes to the Elite Eight in 2019, but there wasn’t nearly as much attention on the Hawkeyes then. During the 2023 Final Four weekend, though, news conferences and open locker room sessions were filled to the brim trying to talk to Clark.

    Ticket prices to the American Airlines Center in Dallas soared higher than those of the men’s Final Four, with fans paying hundreds of dollars to see Clark and the Hawkeyes.

    The 2023 national championship game against LSU was packed, and it drew an unprecedented 9.9 million viewers. Well, it was unprecedented at the time.

    After sweeping the national player of the year awards as a junior, Clark’s senior year blew what was once unprecedented out of the water.

    Starring in commercials with State Farm, having her own cereal through HyVee, and deals with Nike turned Clark into a household name. It didn’t matter if you followed women’s basketball or not, you knew who Caitlin Clark was.

    “It started out like a small group of women's basketball fans kind of knew who she was, that she was coming on the scene,” McKeown said “... Now, the only person I can compare Caitlin Clark to is Taylor Swift. The hoopla and like, people are lining up at 5 a.m. to get a seat, just get a glance at her and she's making people cry in the stands, people are freaking crying! And I'm like these are the reactions I personally have when I go to a Taylor Swift concert, it's like the most sought-after ticket in town, and she’s the biggest star in sports right now.”

    Carver-Hawkeye Arena was sold out all year, and the Hawkeyes became the hottest ticket in any town they went to. Every road game (aside from two early-season tournament games in Florida) was sold out, including those in West Lafayette and Bloomington.

    Kids brought signs to try and get her attention, waving and cheering whenever she came near. Some people across the nation, Linder said, had signs saying they drove 14 hours to see Clark or even flew in from Germany.

    The most-watched games in women’s college basketball history (Iowa-LSU in the Elite Eight, Iowa-UConn in the Final Four, Iowa-South Carolina in the national championship) all feature her and the Hawkeyes, and she has become a household name more than anyone could have anticipated.

    The rematch against LSU in the Elite Eight brought in more than the 2023 national championship game with 12.3 million viewers, and Iowa’s Final Four game against UConn topped that with 14.2 million. Then came the national championship match against South Carolina, which nearly doubled last year’s number with 18.9 million.

    Clark brought an entire town, an entire state, an entire country together to watch women’s basketball at unprecedented levels. Now, she’s off to the WNBA, and is expected to do the same thing in Indianapolis as she is picked by the Fever on Monday night.

    And the Fever is the team that needs it the most. Indiana hasn't been to the playoffs since Tamika Catchings retired in 2016, and the Fever had the second-lowest attendance in the league in 2023 with an average of 4,066 fans per game. Indiana is already on the up and up, with a young core of Aliyah Boston, NaLyssa Smith and Kelsey Mitchell, and Clark fits into the puzzle perfectly.

    The league has already been preparing for her arrival — the Fever have 36 of their 40 games on national television, which is the most in the league and a stratospheric leap from one nationally televised game in 2023. The Fever have a special presale for single-game tickets leading up to the draft, releasing limited amounts of tickets for two games per day.

    There's a saying in Indiana that goes, 'in 49 states, it’s just basketball.' Clark is coming to the one where it means the most.

    “What she does is she plays unlike anybody else,” Linder said. “Her game is on a different level than people have seen, and Indiana is such a basketball crazy state. And I just think they're gonna fall in love with her.”

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