Women’s NCAA basketball tournament was a game-changer | Bench Talk with Ben Ray

It seems like we are entering a time where the WNBA is ready to take that next leap to become even more mainstream with the help of these athletes. Why is that?

Coming off of the women’s NCAA basketball tournament, it seems like there has been hype and excitement like never before behind the women’s game and athletics in general.

Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, JuJu Watkins and Paige Bueckers have become household names and must-see TV. What is also incredible is I didn’t even have to name a woman from one of the best teams in the country, South Carolina, who completed their revenge story by defeating Iowa and winning the national championship after falling last season.

It seems like we are entering a time where the WNBA is ready to take that next leap to become even more mainstream with the help of these athletes. Why is that?

I think there are a multitude of factors, but the most prominent is exposure. Right now the access to these athletes is unprecedented with the integration of social media and the era we are in right now.

Before this season even just 10 years ago, it took historic runs for the women’s NCAA tournament to reach the masses. The University of Connecticut Huskies are the prime example of that. With players like Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, they went on their run, winning six championships in seven years. A streak like that was almost too much domination. It took away two things that we love in sports, and as sports fans, we crave mostly two things — personality and parody.

This year we have both. We have the personalities of Clark and Reese, even Hailey Van Lith, who all made the Final Four. But South Carolina was the best team and as a result, they defeated the Hawkeyes in the national championship. But there were so many storylines about this tournament.

But why this year? Why now? We might not ever know, but one thing is for sure. These girls can ball. Seeing these girls do unreal things on the basketball court is why we love the game. Clark pulling up from the parking lot like Steph Curry is what drew people in, and we can’t do anything but be in awe. It’s not just Clark either — players like Watkins at USC have been draining shots from all over the floor all year. This is what fans want to see them do it against the best, and these women delivered.

We all saw Clark and Reese go at it last year in the championship game, going shot for shot with each other. Sports fans love that. Then with the addition of NIL, we can see them more in our daily lives — rather than before, when we could see them only in promotions for their games, which might have only been promoted on ESPN.

NIL and transferring is all part of the changing landscape of college athletics. Take a look at the men’s side — players are moving from team to team and even going to the NBA after their first year.

For the first time, probably ever, many college sports fans could name more women’s basketball players than men’s, which is an incredible sentence to type and say out loud, but it is real.

My dad doesn’t have social media, barely watches cable, doesn’t watch basketball (because of the Sonics departure), but knew of Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. Three years ago, he probably couldn’t name one women’s player and her respective school.

These women have put the sport at unheard of levels of popularity. The elite eight rematch between Iowa and LSU drew an average 12.3 million viewers, the most ever. That record was broken when Iowa played UConn in the final four with 14.2 million. Then that record was broken during the national championship between Iowa and South Carolina, which averaged 18.7 million and had a combined viewing total of 24 million viewers across ABC and ESPN broadcasts.

The championship of the women’s NCAA tournament outdrew the men’s tournament and was the most viewed basketball game college or professional since 2019.

Now it comes down to the WNBA and how they can capitalize on the momentum these women have built from their own personal brands.

Women’s basketball has reached a level of fandom that is special and I hope that it carries into the professional level. I still think there should be a professional fastpitch league, let alone professional volleyball.

The University of Nebraska volleyball team filled a 91,000 seat stadium last August for a game against Omaha. People love women’s sports and I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Ben Ray writes about sports in South King County. Contact benjamin.ray@fedwaymirror.com.