The WNBA’s Caitlin Clark Era begins now


Welcome to the first year of the rest of the WNBA’s life.

The WNBA’s 28th season, which tips off Tuesday night, is Year 1 of Caitlin Clark, the Indiana Fever rookie who has seized the popular sports imagination in a way not seen by a women’s basketball player in a generation, if ever.

What will the Caitlin Clark Effect be for a league on the cusp of a if-you-build-it-they-will-come breakthrough?

The WNBA is betting big on Caitlin Clark to usher in a new era. AP

To what extent will the rabid attention the former Iowa phenom garnered in college — where she broke records on the court with her scoring prowess and heralded new highs in live attendance and television audiences — follow her to the pros?

Network executives and ticket offices are counting on a bump.

The Fever, a borderline playoff team, have been booked for national television in 36 of their 40 games, and several opponents have switched to venues with larger capacities for when Clark comes to town. They open on the road Tuesday night against the Connecticut Sun.

“This is a preseason game on a Thursday night and there’s 13,000 people here,” Clark said last week following her home debut for Indiana. “I think that just shows what it’s going to be like for us all season, and it’s going to help us.”

How is the spotlight shared among Clark and the diverse superstars — several of whom power a ferocious reigning dynasty in Las Vegas — who have toiled as the WNBA has traced a long, logo-3 arc to prominence?

Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) signs autographs for fans Thursday, May 9, 2024, after the preseason game against the Atlanta Dream at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

The answers to those questions have massive implications as the WNBA reaches an inflection point in its growth.

The boffo TV numbers from this spring augur well.

The national championship game in which Clark’s Hawkeyes fell to South Carolina drew 18.9 million viewers, a women’s basketball record and a high for any basketball game since 2019.

The WNBA draft, in which Clark was selected No. 1 overall (no suspense there), established a record with 2.45 million viewers.

Heck, nearly half a million people watched someone named Alli’s cell-phone stream of an untelevised preseason game featuring the Chicago Sky and rookie Angel Reese, Clark’s collegiate rival.

Last week, the WNBA announced the adoption of charter flights for the coming seasons, a longtime point of advocacy for players and a change that can be seen as shorthand for the league entering the realm of big business.

Angel Reese, Clark’s college rival, will also be a significant part of any WNBA growth. Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

New teams are on the way: a franchise in Golden State next year, in Toronto the year after, then two more to bring the total to 16.

That will increase inventory when the WNBA negotiates a new media rights deal to take effect following the 2025 season, which will create an influx of capital to use to massively expand the salary cap in the next collective bargaining agreement.

“The growth is happening so fast,” said Cheryl Reeve, the Minnesota Lynx’s head coach and president of basketball operations. “It’s so accelerated. And I’ve been saying this in our own organization, that business as usual isn’t going to work anymore.”

Let’s bounce-pass over to a few more storylines to follow:

Aces High?

A’ja Wilson leads the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces as the odds-on favorites to claim a historic three-peat — which would be the WNBA’s first since the Houston Comets won the first four titles (1997-2000) and the first in major North American pro sports since the NBA’s Lakers (2000-02).

Becky Hammon’s team has a star at nearly every position with Wilson, a two-time MVP who is currently the best player in the world, joined by point guard Chelsea Gray, sniper Kelsey Plum and wing Jackie Young. Candace Parker is gone, but the depth is improved. If there’s a question, it’s about Gray’s health after she nursed a foot injury during the offseason.

Superteam Challengers

The Liberty, who lost the best-of-five 2023 Finals in four games, remain the biggest threat to the Aces’ supremacy with an intact starting five.

But the Seattle Storm are reloaded following the offseason acquisitions of forward Nneka Ogwumike and point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who missed last season after giving birth.

Los Angeles Sparks’ Layshia Clarendon (25) drives to the hoop past Seattle Storm’s Skylar Diggins-Smith (4) during the second half of a WNBA preseason basketball game. AP

And the Phoenix Mercury have no shortage of star power with franchise pillars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner plus newcomers Kahleah Copper and Natasha Cloud.

The Other Rookies

Clark is the headliner, but the 2024 rookie class is filled with talents who achieved name recognition through their recent college exploits.

Reese brings the limelight to Chicago, where she will be teammates on the Sky with former South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso. And No. 2 pick Cameron Brink will feature for the rebuilding Los Angeles Sparks.

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