Sports

Perspective | Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese attracted everyone to watch. You better buckle up.

ALBANY, N.Y. — Late Monday night, three fans in black headed to downtown Albany in search of a proper celebration. Their team and their hero had won the long-awaited turning point in women’s basketball, and so this trio walked down the middle of Howard Street, panting as they climbed the hilly asphalt. Beer was waiting around the corner.

“Everyone is jumping on our… bandwagon,” one fan complained to her friends.

She didn’t mean the Iowa Hawkeyes. She meant women’s tires.

Long after Iowa dispatched defending champion LSU on Monday night, a nail-biting 94-87 romp that at times looked like it would require a seatbelt, a crowd lingered in the lower section of MVP Arena. The Hawkeyes had secured a spot in the Final Four for the second straight year, which paid off after LSU defeated them in last year’s title game. And so the fans stayed there and cheered as the players snipped off their spoils from the night, jagged pieces of nylon netting, and then held them up. It sounded like a roar as Caitlin Clark raised her noise.

It wasn’t just Iowa City’s finest that filled the postgame crowd. Actor Jason Sudeikis was allowed through the yellow barriers and stood on the field taking photos with guard Kate Martin’s family, for heaven’s sake. He was wearing a gray hoodie. The back read: “Everyone watches women’s sports.”

But as one of the three Iowa fans strolled down a sleepy street, sharing his passion with millions of others watching the Titanic match on ESPN, he must have been alarmed.

“I’m glad more people like women’s basketball because they used to look forward to it,” she said, climbing up the street but looking back at the not-so-distant past.

The OGs of women’s basketball need to make room in their club as more and more people, maybe even some die-hard haters, come rushing in and putting their feet up like they own the place. You’re here for the good stuff. These freshmen realize that Clark could be an even better passer than an unconscious shooter. But when a sport grows in popularity, as was the case with women’s college basketball last year, its gatekeepers can’t always protect their game from the downsides of growth.

On Monday, Angel Reese wore a shimmering tiara on the field as the starters were introduced. She’s a star, so the crown was just for show. However, had she been more honest about her props, Reese might have chosen to wear a target.

Since winning the title in 2023 and becoming one of America’s most talked-about athletes, Reese has spent a year equally basking in the glow of fame and being sung by it. Her “You can’t see me” taunt in the closing moments of the championship game and her “Bayou Barbie” brand might have opened the door to a host of name, image and likeness deals and exponentially more followers on social media — today’s currency . But some of those new eyeballs watching the women’s game and its stars were also waiting for Reese to fall. (Or watching to see if she and her teammates would pass during the national anthem.)

The loss to Iowa didn’t make Reese cry. When she was fouled with less than two minutes to play — after scoring 17 points and grabbing 20 rebounds while hampered by an ankle injury — she walked calmly and stoically down the sideline. But as she sat at a podium and listened to teammates Flau’jae Johnson and then Hailey Van Lith defend her, Reese sniffled and wiped away tears.

“I’ve been through so much,” Reese said, her voice broken. “I have seen so much. I was attacked so many times, with death threats. I’ve been sexualized, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been through so many things and I’ve stayed strong every time. I just try to be strong for my teammates because I don’t want them to belittle me and not be there for them. I just want them to always know that I’m still human.”

During this somber press conference, occasional cheers echoed through the hallway. Another Hawkeye cut through the net.

The way this game was advertised and expected, one would think that only Clark would be allowed to touch the scissors. Although Iowa plays fast and delights purists with its buffet of backcuts — just a fun way to play basketball — the attention off the court is focused on Clark and not so much on her teammates. Stars rule the leagues and TV ratings, but networks seem to have little faith in the attention spans of the sport’s newest devotees. So little that they rely on the easily digestible storylines of one player versus another, blowing up antics that happen in the heat of battle. Other sports have adapted to this game. Women’s basketball is still in the adjustment phase.

Still, this rematch lived up to the hype overall and in the social media-sized clips. In the rush of the first quarter, as Iowa and LSU traded threes and momentum, Clark either scored or assisted on 15 of her team’s first 17 points. Their deep shots came in stacks, three in the first three minutes of the second half, one shareable snippet at a time. Van Lith played the role of the unwitting antagonist shrugged his shoulders hopelessly after Clark rose in front of her to hit one of her nine three-pointers. Of course, Van Lith’s despondency became a punchline on social media.

But Clark didn’t have to retaliate by waving her hand across her face, as Reese did a year ago in one of the moments that made last year’s clash a sensation. Sudeikis took care of it. ESPN cameras caught the actor – he is a supporter of the WNBA’s New York Liberty and not a supporter of women’s basketball – doing so He Join the “You Can’t See Me” celebration.

In the final minute, with Iowa in control of the win, Clark was more subdued. She silenced the crowd behind the Iowa bench, which started a chant of “Let’s Go Hawks!” Chants before teammate Sydney Affolter makes free throws. Later, near the end of her tour de force of 41 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds, Clark made a heart sign gesture toward the crowd and gave a thumbs up to a person across from the LSU bench.

“Last year when we beat them, we didn’t even guard them,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said of Clark. “She’s just a generational player and just makes everyone around her better. That’s what the big guys do.”

A generational player on a very good team defeated the champions in a prime-time game that had everyone watching and everyone commenting, for better or worse. Feels like growth.

Late into the evening, the Hawkeyes – the ones you’ve heard of and the ones you haven’t heard of – triumphantly climbed the ladder to play with scissors and claim their mementos. The most loyal fans waited to watch. One of them later wandered with her friends to a nearby beer hall and wondered if to A lot of people are watching now. Growth feels scary sometimes.

Everyone watches women’s sports. And talks about women’s sports, posts about women’s sports and brings her own agenda to the table when it comes to women’s sports. Players who were once perhaps known only to diehards instead become targets, characters, or even caricatures. These are the growing pains of a game attracting a new legion of fans. They’re still pushing this fast-moving bandwagon, and everyone might want to buckle up.

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