Sports Journalism Blog

By Madie Chandler | @madie_chandler

Sports Capital Journalism Program

CLEVELAND — Few things are certain about the meeting of the Iowa Hawkeyes and South Carolina Gamecocks in the NCAA national championship, but one fact rings true: it will be Caitlin Clark’s last game in an Iowa uniform.

Her Hawkeye career is marked by a legacy of inspiration, enhancing the visibility of women’s basketball and encouraging the next generation of athletes to dare to dream. In her time at Iowa, Clark has set or broke numerous attendance records, including 22 sellouts of Carver Hawkeye Arena, and record-breaking TV audience numbers.

Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse’s Final Four weekend crowd is a rainbow of spirit boasting the garnet and black of South Carolina, the navy of UConn, and the prideful streak of Wolfpack red.

None, though, come close to overpowering the smattering of Hawkeye black and gold.

More yellow 22s are printed on shirts and other merchandise in the arena than Final Four logos, and kids in attendance swarm to see the superhero of their weekend. She smiles and embraces them.

“I don’t want my legacy to be, oh, Caitlin won X amount of games or Caitlin scored X amount of points,” Clark began. “I hope it’s what I was able to do for the game of women’s basketball. I hope it is the young boys and young girls that are inspired to play this sport or dream to do whatever they want to do in their lives.”

Clark’s visibility is unmatched. She entered Saturday’s open practice to young kids lining the arena stairs. She walked to the scorer’s table to speak to her coaches and phones rose in waves to snap photos. She went through shooting drills as cheers from little girls cascaded onto the court, “Caitlin! Caitlin Clark!”

She knows she’s had an impact, but she recognizes great players and coaches that walked the walk before her.

“Women’s basketball isn’t just suddenly good,” Clark said. “It’s been good…It isn’t just the people that are in the college game right now. It’s every single person that’s come before us. Now you’re seeing we’re on ESPN, we’re on nationally televised TV stations that people are like, ‘Wow, this is so much fun to watch.’ They can’t get enough of it. It’s scheduled in their night. They’re sitting down and watching.”

But will they still be watching when No. 22 moves on?

One young girl in Rocket Mortgage Field house holds a sign that reads, “Why I Play Basketball,” with a picture of Clark and another of Paige Bueckers. The departure of one superhero leads to the arrival of another, and Bueckers stands next in line to inherit the crown of superstardom, though she looks to share its shine with others.

“There’s so many names in college basketball now that are huge, that are stars that deserve credit,” Bueckers said. “…I honestly hope next year I’m not the focal point and the only person that gets attention. And I hope, as media, as players, we can spread the love a little bit more.”

The NCAA isn’t pressed for stars on the women’s side.  JuJu Watkins of the USC Trojans broke the NCAA’s Division I freshman scoring record this season, a record set in 1984 by Tina Hutchinson.

Iowa State’s Audi Crooks, another outstanding freshman, set a single-game NCAA Tournament record with her 40 points against Maryland in the first round.

UConn’s Azzi Fudd, a former No. 1 ranked recruit, will return from injury to join Bueckers on Geno Auriemma’s impressive Husky squad.

The star power is there, and Clark’s transcendent performances brought eyes and attention to it. The sustainability of that attention depends on the next generation of players and the on-court product that they can build.

Watkins’ prowess and Crooks’ dominance are early indications of a great run of women’s basketball in the near future, and though the Clark’s departure creates a vacancy of some coveted attention, women’s basketball is in position to take its place among the top sports in America.

“The women’s game is benefitting,” Auriemma said, “and is going to continue to benefit, from the fact that players are around long enough to create a name, create a buzz…These players staying for four years…it gives it a chance to grow, and it gives people a chance to fall in love with these kids.”

The college basketball community fell in love with Caitlin Clark, and Clark’s career has set them up to fall in love with all the great women’s players to come. It’s up to them to decide whether to fall for UConn’s No. 5, USC’s No. 12, and Iowa State’s No. 55 the same way they fell for Iowa’s No. 22.