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Thanks to Caitlin Clark, women’s basketball is now prime time viewing

Analysis by Harry Enten, CNN

(CNN) — Two years ago, I could never have predicted the hype which surrounds tonight’s NCAA women’s basketball Final Four.

It was only last year that this casual, although at times serious, sports fan met a basketball hall of famer and didn’t recognize her. Fortunately, former NCAA head coach Muffet McGraw was kind enough to look past my transgression.

My inability to know who I was talking to is definitely on me, but my guess is that among most casual sports fans I wouldn’t have been alone at that time in lacking knowledge about women’s NCAA basketball.

That has all changed. Women’s college basketball is not just on the map for casual fans, it’s a star on the map – thanks at least, in large part, to Iowa star Caitlin Clark.

Let’s first talk about television ratings. Over 12 million people watched Clark’s Hawkeyes defeat Angel Reese’s LSU on Monday night, according to ESPN. In today’s media environment, the idea that over 12 million would watch a cable program that isn’t the NFL is unheard of.

You examine the cable ratings on an average night, and the top programs are usually pulling in well less than five million.

If it were a network prime time broadcast, Monday’s game would have been a top 45 show in 2023.

In fact, most big sports events don’t pull in over 12 million. The Iowa-LSU game had more viewers than the average MLB World Series, NBA Final or Stanley Cup game last season.

I want you to look at that prior sentence again and fully digest it. Women’s college basketball is beating America’s pastime. If that doesn’t say the sport has arrived in the American psyche, I don’t know what does.

Not surprisingly, the viewership for the Iowa-LSU game broke the all time record for a women’s game. It easily dethroned last year’s championship game between these two squads, which came in at a little under 10 million. Even more amazingly, that game, unlike Monday’s, was available for free on ABC.

You’ll note too that both the new record and old record involved Iowa and LSU. Before last year’s championship game, the highest viewership for a women’s game was more than 20 years ago (before the splintering of media). Just 5.7 million folks tuned into that game.

In other words, the new record more than doubled the one from the pre-Clark era.

Perhaps, what’s most interesting about the viewership record occurring on Monday night is that the game wasn’t a championship game. It wasn’t even a semi-final. It was an Elite Eight matchup.

Of course, Iowa is no stranger to widely watched non-championship games. The viewership for their previous three games were 6.9 million, 4.9 million and 3.2 million. All of those would have been records for non-Final Four or championship games prior to this season.

The 6.9 million would have been the biggest telecast in women’s college basketball history at any stage prior to last season.

Note too that 6.7 million Americans tuned into the game following Iowa-LSU on Monday night (UConn-USC), so this isn’t solely a Clark phenomenon.

There are alternate ways we can gauge interest in the tournament this season. Take a gander at Google searches for women’s college basketball.

This year there have been more searches since Google started tracking it in the early 2000s. This year is on track to more than double the previous record, which was last year. Last year was double the record before Clark became a household name.

But it’s not just prior tournaments this year’s women’s tournament is beating. The other big entertainment event of the last week was Beyoncé’s new album release. Far more people Googled about the NCAA women’s games than they did about Beyoncé.

The tournament is beating politicians, too. More people have been searching women’s college basketball than for US President Joe Biden. When you are beating the president, you know you’re being talked about.

The interest in the tournament goes beyond mere curiosity.

Every year, millions of Americans fill out their tournament brackets. Usually, it’s a men’s tournament bracket. Increasingly, a lot of Americans are filling a women’s bracket.

This year more than 4 million Americans filled out a bracket on one of the major websites (e.g. ESPN and NCAA) that feature them. Over three million filled them out on ESPN alone.

These numbers would be impressive on its own, but it’s even more so given where we were before Clark became a household name in the past two seasons.

In 2022, only about 1.5 million Americans filled out a women’s tournament bracket on This means that the number of people filling out women’s brackets has more than doubled from just a few seasons ago.

Some of those brackets are just for bragging rights, but some will have an office money pool associated with them.

Indeed, there are a lot of people who are putting their money on the line when it comes to seeing the women play.

Check the prices for the men’s and women’s college basketball Final Four. Tickets for both have usually been going for hundreds of dollars on Stubhub. More than that, the tickets to the women’s tournament are often the more sought item in the past week.

That is, depending on the time you check, it will cost you more to see the women’s final four than the men’s.

Two years ago, I think most would have found that to be shocking. Given the last two weeks, I don’t think anyone is that surprised.

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