Women’s basketball explodes in popularity

Women’s hoops explodes in popularity

Athletes like Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers and Dyaisha Fair are changing the sport and industry.

Caitlin Clark at the WNBA Draft held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 15, 2024 in New York, New York.
Caitlin Clark, seen here at the 2024 WNBA Draft on April 15 is one of the most popular athletes in women’s basketball.

As Rachel Galligan walked through the grocery store, she overheard two people talking about women’s college basketball. She never would have imagined that women’s basketball would be this popular.

Now, the sport’s landscape has reached a new peak, and Galligan is here for it.

“I never quite dreamed of a day where the women’s Final Four would be this much bigger than the men’s Final Four. I never envisioned that,” Galligan said. “It’s not that I didn’t hope for it, I just didn’t allow myself to dream that large. And here we are.”

The former Eastern Illinois basketball player and current women’s basketball international scout knows better than anyone how important this step is in growing the sport.

“I get chills thinking about it. I’m kind of left here speechless, thinking, well, what is the limit? Maybe there is no limit. Maybe this just continues to trend in this direction,” she said.

The 2024 season was momentous for women’s college basketball, increasing its viewership rapidly. According to Nielsen, the 2024 Women’s NCAA Championship between South Carolina and Iowa saw viewership increase over 288% from 2022.

According to, the Syracuse women’s basketball’s average attendance has more than doubled since the 2021-22 season. The product on the court has also improved in that time, increasing their season win total from 11 to 24 in the 2023-24 season.

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The Syracuse women’s basketball team doubled both attendance and total wins in three years.

Former Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark is among the reasons for these changes. Clark smashed every NCAA scoring record in her sight and is seen as a pioneer in its popularity. Now, Clark and a star-studded draft class entered the WNBA, which lags behind the NCAA in popularity. The pros have already received more attention, with Clark and the Indiana Fever selling out their preseason matchup against the Dallas Wings.

Women’s basketball has long had a wealth of talent, but there seems to be something unique about the current talent that is drawing in large crowds. Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, a longtime freelance journalist who specializes in the sport, compared Clark to an NBA legend.

“We haven’t seen a player like her on the women’s side ever. Not to say there haven’t been great players, but her style and her game, a lot of people equate it to Steph Curry on the men’s side, and I think that’s a perfect example,” she said. “We’ve never seen anyone shoot with the range that she has on the women’s side. That has drawn attention and excitement.”

Now, the space is seeing a flow of new markets trying to capitalize on the industry’s success. Getty Images staff photographer Steph Chambers took photos of the NCAA women’s Final Four and championship games in 2024, and her mindset when shooting photos has already changed to adapt to this new market.

“I might be more interested in Caitlin Clark’s reaction if she screams ‘good job’ to her teammate, that photo is worth more. In terms of her deals, she’s sponsored by Nike and Gatorade. So, you kind of have to photograph in a different mindset,” she said.

Former men’s college basketball coach and current analyst Brian Burton foresees this shift in marketability in the WNBA as well. “I think the young stars will help change the attention… You’re going to see more endorsements and more money going into women’s basketball,” he said.

This goes far beyond Caitlin Clark. There are plenty of other stars from this generation in the spotlight. Former LSU forward Angel Reese, former South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso and rising senior at UConn Paige Bueckers contributed to what the media values the most: a good storyline.

Burton acknowledged that the media is searching for the next big story that will grab a viewer’s attention, and women’s basketball has become a mainstay for good stories. Cardoso and Reese, for example, were rivals on the court since high school. Now, they both got drafted to the same WNBA team, he said.

“You want star power and you want storylines. So obviously, Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese on the same team is a storyline,” he said. “One won a national championship last year and one won the national championship the year before. Now they’re both on the same team in Chicago.”

These storylines in the NCAA form during the offseason, with the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) in full force.

The NCAA removed a rule that stated athletes must sit out for at least one season after transferring, which increased portal entrances for athletes who wanted a quick change of scenery. Further, the NCAA opened the door for athletes to earn sponsorships through NIL, driving players to markets where they could make more money.

Former Syracuse star guard Dyaisha Fair transferred from Buffalo in 2022, and proceeded to get drafted by the Las Vegas Aces in the 2024 WNBA Draft. After transferring, she saw more NIL opportunities such as the Syracuse NIL Store, and more national attention for her scoring records and performance in the NCAA Tournament.

Dyaisha Fair (#2) walks out for the game against Duke on Thursday, February 22, 2024 in the JMA Wireless Dome.
Dyaisha Fair, seen here walking out for a game against Duke on February 22, 2024, saw more NIL opportunities and attention after she transferred to Syracuse.
yaisha Fair poses with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being selected 16th overall pick by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 15, 2024 in New York City.
Following her success at Syracuse, Fair was drafted by the Las Vegas Aces in the 2024 WNBA Draft. She played a game before the team cut the guard.

Burton noted these changes as the biggest he’s seen in nearly 20 years in college basketball. He added that the landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. This new era can be encapsulated with TCU guard Hailey Van Lith, for example, who is now on her third college team in three years.

“She averaged 19 points a game and wanted to go for a national championship…LSU gave her a great chance to win as a team. They went to the Elite Eight. Then, she was able to leave, capitalize on her name, image, and likeness, and play a bigger role again,” he said.

On April 29th, Van Lith posted an advertisement on Instagram with LaCroix, a sparkling water company, four days after signing with TCU.

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With more attention and money in women’s college basketball, followers are conflicted about what impacts these changes will have on the game.

D’Arcangelo sees both sides for players and coaches. “I think it puts a lot of autonomy in players’ hands, and I like that, but I also think, on the flip side, it makes it difficult to maintain continuity,” she said.

The transfer portal has been detrimental to incoming high school recruits, who are receiving less attention from scouts diverting their attention to transfers. Lisa Jordan, a women’s basketball scout in Illinois, understands why coaches lean towards more proven talent. “I think it helps coaches. It’s a lot easier to build a roster if you know somebody that’s already played and you know their style, and you have been able to see them play in college games,” she said.

Jordan attributes a slowing of high school offers to the transfer portal. Most student athletes she scouted received offers by their sophomore years. Now, talented athletes are not getting offers until their junior or senior years, she said. The Illinois native sees these changes and wants parents to be reasonable. 

“What I try to do as a scout is be really realistic with kids. I think sometimes parents have unrealistic expectations of what they think their daughter is,” she said. “You know, just because you’re a good high school player doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to translate into a good college player.”

Regardless, college teams continue recruiting high school athletes, as young stars are how the next generation of fans will connect with the sport, Galligan said. She sees unlimited potential in the growing young talent seen coming out of high school.

“Look at this entire freshman class and how impressive and impactful they were as 18 and 19-year-olds in their first year of college, playing at the highest level,” Galligan said. “I mean, the talent there is as strong as it’s ever been in a freshman class.”

This is also why Galligan does not see women’s college basketball trying to replace Caitlin Clark, but leaning into the talent that’s already there.

“The torch will be passed down. I think it will look different. I don’t think you can replicate Caitlin Clark,” she said. “But as time goes on, there’s going to be just different sets of characters and players that bring a personality to the game.”