When Caitlin Clark Comes to Town

What happens when Caitlin Clark comes to town?

Everyone else does, too.

The Big Ten women’s basketball tournament, which starts Wednesday in Minneapolis, has sold out for the first time, at least in part thanks to Clark, the star point guard for Iowa and new record-holder for career scoring in Division I.

Clark began her college career playing in front of empty stands in 2020 during the pandemic. This season, she’s a national sensation, filling arenas from Iowa to Wisconsin to Maryland and drawing unprecedented attention to women’s college basketball.

One way to gauge her popularity is by looking at changes in attendance at the colleges that have hosted Iowa.

Every away game Clark played during the regular season sold out the arena, according to data from Big Ten colleges. (Her home games sold out, too.)

Her away games averaged some 13,000 fans, more than twice as high as the average for non-Iowa games at those colleges, ESPN data shows. A couple of times, her games drew twice as many fans as the next best attended game.

For both her talents and her ability to draw a crowd, Clark has been compared to Pete Maravich, Steph Curry, Larry Bird and LeBron James. But Debbie Antonelli, an ESPN and CBS analyst who has been covering the sport for more than three decades, says that in women’s college basketball history, there’s no real comparison.

“We have never seen anyone like this, that has this draw to the box office,” she said. “It’s remarkable.”

Antonelli calls the phenomenon “Clarkonomics,” likening it to the Taylor Swift tour. Some of Clark’s fans, she points out, are calling themselves “Clarkies,” like “Swifties.”

Clark is drawing eyes outside arenas, too: TV viewership for women’s college basketball is up 60 percent from last season, said Mike Mulvihill, president of insights and analytics at Fox Sports. And at least on Fox Sports, he said, women’s college basketball has drawn a bigger audience than the men’s version this season.

The network also reported that its broadcast of Iowa hosting Ohio State on Sunday was the most watched regular-season women’s college basketball game in 25 years. (Iowa won.)

“These are the kind of stats that come along once in a generation,” he said.

Cheryl Cooky, a Purdue professor who studies gender in sports — and holds season tickets — was in the stands when Iowa visited. (Iowa won.) The top tier of the stands, typically sparsely populated, was full, she said, and the “alive-ness of being in the crowd and the stadium that night” nearly brought her to tears.

Clark’s appearance at Ohio State in January drew more than 18,000 fans — a women’s basketball record for the Buckeyes. (Ohio State won, in overtime.) When Clark played at Northwestern, some fans began lining up in the late morning, many hours before the evening game, just so they could get the best seats. (Iowa won.)

Northern Iowa sold some 1,400 season tickets — up from a typical 400 — “largely for fans to be able to guarantee their seats for that one specific game,” said Joel Wauters, an assistant athletic director. (Iowa won.)

Ahead of the University of Minnesota’s turn to host Clark’s team last week, officials knew to expect a crowd. They opened the doors earlier than usual, said Mike Wierzbicki, a senior associate athletics director, only to find a long line already formed outside, despite frigid temperatures.

There are also complications to hosting Clark. She travels with her own security — extremely unusual for women’s collegiate basketball — and colleges have to plan and coordinate with Iowa on how she’ll get around, including just the short distance from the locker room to the court.

Sold-out games also require more of everything: staff, parking and, especially, food. For Clark’s visit, Wierzbicki said, Minnesota opened additional concession stands and stocked up on hot dogs, chicken fingers, French fries and Powerade.

A few blocks away, the Graduate Minneapolis hotel sold out of rooms for the night, said Kyle Leonard, a front desk manager. There was a wave of guests from Iowa, but other states were represented, too. Parking garages and restaurants were packed.

Though Leonard is no basketball fan, he decided to tune into the game on TV because of Clark. He didn’t seem to mind that his local team lost by more than 40 points.

“Seeing the distances of where she was shooting from, watching the score just constantly go up,” he said. “It was really entertaining.”