Whose Job Is It to Help the WNBA Thrive? 

Caitlin Clark is arguably one of the greatest female collegiate players of all time. She is a two-time unanimous national player of the year, holds the NCAA Division I all-time scoring record (for both women and men), two MVP awards, and both the NCAA tournament 3-point and scoring career record. Her collegiate career has quickly changed the face of women’s basketball.

In the past two years, Clark has, as South Carolina’s Coach Dawn Staley aptly put it, lifted the sport — we’re talking of unprecedented popularity for women’s basketball. More viewership than ever (18.9 million people watched South Carolina beat Iowa in the championship this year). People are packing out games, despite the nearly 200 percent increase in ticket price. Celebrities such as actor Jason Sudeikis and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts came to the championship game (one of the tells that a sport has reached national “cool” status). There are those that praise Clark for carrying such a heavy load. But she is treading a fine line, and she knows it.

When a female athlete reaches the level of superstar, their career immediately magnifies the cultural and societal frustrations surrounding women’s professional sports. Women’s sports are generally not as popular to watch, garnering only about five percent of the overall sports media coverage. There’s the age-old question about equity, as well as accessibility. The WNBA has struggled in the past to give more behind-the-scenes looks at players and teams. A superstar like Clark comes along and every possible burden gets placed on her shoulders: Perhaps she can make professional women’s basketball relevant, eliminate the wage gap, create economic gain for the entire league, and bring the WNBA into a new era of increased visibility and positive media relations. You see the problem, right?

Clark’s No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft on April 15 has only increased people’s expectations of her. But it has also shown signs of strain. And it should make us wonder: Why do professional women’s sports like the WNBA struggle to survive? And more importantly, whose job is it to help Clark and by extension her fellow professional athletes succeed? 

Clark in Context

The conversation around Caitlin Clark in the WNBA is certainly about her image as a women’s basketball superstar, but we’re also talking about the gendered politics behind people’s support (or lack thereof) to her image. It’s not about any one issue or conversation, or whether our expectations for her would be different if, say, she was a woman of color. It’s about all of the conversations layered on top of each other at this current juncture in women’s professional basketball: in 2024, Clark’s comparison to male NBA players, male viewership of the WNBA, how previous female basketball superstars have been perceived. So let’s unpack it.

1. Clark has been compared to NBA superstar, Steph Curry. Both make wildly impressive 3-point plays. Curry catalyzed 3-point shooting in the NBA. In comparison, Clark is the greatest shooter to come out of women’s college basketball, and is having a similar effect on women’s basketball. She made 84 3-point plays from 25-plus feet out, and she even broke the women’s college basketball scoring record with a 3-point play from the logo. That’s the level she’s playing at, and this is the source of her popularity. She’s playing the way male viewers wish they could play. She’s not incredibly explosive. She doesn’t dunk like a male NBA player. But she shoots the way men wish they could.

Vicarious viewership is real. Fans, men in particular, watch Clark and get inspired to go hit the court. It’s the reason why many of us watch sports in the first place — for that wonder and awe of the greats being great and for a model to aspire to. But the fact that this current model is distinctly female, and that Clark is being analyzed in the context of men’s basketball, not women’s, makes her an outlier in her sport, as if she’s more than just “woman.”

2. Clark is the reason male viewership of the women’s game has skyrocketed. Statista Research Department conducted a survey in March of last year and discovered that WNBA popularity is becoming more popular for men, with 11 percent of men indicating they were avid fans of the league whereas just four percent of females indicated the same. This number, no doubt, will increase due to the Clark effect. She plays the type of basketball game men enjoy watching (i.e., she breaks records like her male counterparts). In early March of this year, Clark passed LSU and NBA legend “Pistol Pete” Maravich for the most points scored by a Division I basketball player. Hence, her comparison to Pete Maravich as “Ponytail Pete.” 

Forget about where you stand on the debate of whether women’s sports are boring. The fact that more men now, and even more will, watch the WNBA because Clark plays “like a man” matters. Because the percentage of women who watch women’s sports is really low. The percentage of men who watch sports is high and they generally watch men’s sports. Women watch men’s sports too. This is why viewership is so lopsided. So, when a large swath of men tune into a female sport, something is happening here that we can’t quickly dismiss. 

3. It’s possible that some of the current WNBA women’s basketball players want Clark to fail. Diana Taurasi, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, scoffed Clark’s abilities, saying “Reality is coming … you look superhuman playing against some 18-year olds but you’re going to come play with some grown women that have been playing professional basketball for a long time.” New York Liberty star Breanna Stewart claimed Clark couldn’t be the GOAT (greatest of all time) unless she won a championship. Golf influencer, Paige Spiranac, fired back, claiming that these women were just being vicious. But I can’t help but see the jealous undertones in these comments. Women like Taurasi and Stewart have paid their dues but male viewership around their game has never been high. Now that Clark is bringing the much-needed visibility to the sport, they hate her for it, because she’s everything men have always wanted to see in women’s basketball, which current female players, for whatever reason, have not been able to provide.

Christian Men, Stewardship, and the WNBA

We are witnessing the most supercharged version of conversations around female basketball players. Clark is forcing the WNBA, the oldest women’s professional sport, to reflect on its own relevancy. Some pundits are raising questions of power and structure. But ultimately what’s going to move the needle forward is economics. The WNBA has a revenue issue, not an exposure issue. 

The Clark effect is about what we as fans owe to the athletes that entertain and inspire us, how armchair viewership really can make a financial impact on sports leagues, and most importantly why caring for the livelihood of professional athletes (on and off the field) is more tied to Christian stewardship than we realize. 

As Christians in the age of athletes like Clark, we are called to embrace stewardship not only in our resources but also in recognizing and nurturing talents and skills. The Bible teaches us in Matthew 25:14–30 about the Parable of the Talents, where each servant is entrusted with talents (that is, a monetary measurement) by their master and expected to use them wisely for fruitful outcomes. The commitment to watch and support women’s sports, like the WNBA games where talents like Clark are on the rise, not only shows a valuation of female athletes but immediately connects the broader impact of our viewership on the financial sustainability of women’s sports leagues.

Christian stewardship offers two solutions to the question of the WNBA’s future. Solution one, which has been the traditional approach for female sports, is to invest in more developmental programs to create pipelines for more female superstars. Women’s sports will exponentially increase in relation to its number of female superstars. Think of, for example, Rhonda Rousey main eventing UFC fights because she was so good and so charismatic. As a UFC superstar, she even became one of the highest paid UFC fighters for a brief period (think of what more WNBA superstars would do to the question of equitable pay). Because of Rousey, more folks watch women’s fighting than ever before. She elevated women UFC fighters. Clark could do the same for the WNBA, but she needs to be the first of many more superstars to come. In this solution, the emphasis is on institutional investment.

Solution two, I think, is much easier to achieve and more economically feasible. But it factors you, the viewer. Christians, and Christian men in particular, can empower the WNBA by simply watching the WNBA this summer and, especially during the fall, regardless of how that conflicts with the NFL schedule. This goes back to the question of male viewership. A lot of men tuned into the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. And, generally, more men have watched the WNBA in the summers when few other sports were in season. But what happens when Clark’s games compete with air time for the Euro Soccer Championship and the Olympics? What happens when we get to the fall and the NFL season kicks off? We know that sports revenue is boosted by viewership. To help the WNBA thrive means becoming more than a bandwagon fan. Just watching Clark play feels like an incredibly low bar to move the needle forward on sustainability, but what can it hurt? 

I say, give it a shot.

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