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Caitlin Clark Media Coverage is Good for Everybody in the WNBA

It’s time to talk about Caitlin Clark. The rookie guard for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever has become a legit phenomenon in the media. She has singlehandedly, and I repeat, singlehandedly put the focus on a league that has been largely ignored by mainstream sports talk shows for a quarter century.

Nobody wants to admit that one person can change a sport or a league. It is viewed as a slight to people who came before that special athlete and that special athlete’s contemporaries, but it has happened on numerous occasions, and we’ll get to that.

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From a marketing and media standpoint, Caitlin Clark is a human tidal wave of interest, excitement, and anticipation. She quite literally brought tens of millions of eyes to the 2024 Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and deservedly so, she will most likely earn tens of millions of endorsement dollars from a variety of corporations and their products. She has inspired congratulations and controversy, especially with her recent exclusion from the USA Basketball Women’s National team.

The reaction to Clark’s success and attention from some members of the media and WNBA players has been shocking. Tremendous commentators such as Andraya Carter, Chiney Ogwumike, and Rebecca Lobo have, at times, come off as apologists for WNBA players who are just plain jealous of Clark’s unprecedented popularity.

As ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith has explained eloquently, these critics are missing the point from a marketing and economic perspective. Clark has not only helped herself with her play, but has also brought attention and focus to women’s hoops as a whole.

By tuning in to see what Clark does, viewers are also noticing the many other great WNBA players. Clark is that rare breed of athlete who is truly changing the game, making it better and more profitable not only for herself, but for everyone involved at all levels.

On recent editions of ESPN’s First Take, Smith has gone toe to toe with Carter, Ogwumike, and Monica McNutt on the Caitlin Clark issue. The fascinating exchange between Smith and McNutt on the June 3 edition was a watershed moment in recent sports television.

Smith, McNutt, and host Molly Qerim were discussing the hard foul/shove that Chicago’s Chennedy Carter laid on Clark in a WNBA game. The course of the discussion moved toward the rise in WNBA ratings mainly because of Clark’s presence in the league.

The debate eventually came down to a back-and-forth between Smith and McNutt. Smith reiterated his longtime dedication to the WNBA and women’s sports in general. In response, McNutt said that with Smith’s platform, he could’ve been talking as much about the WNBA three years ago, long before Clark’s debut.

Smith was visibly angered and disappointed by McNutt’s comments. On The Stephen A. Smith Show podcast that same day, he defended himself and his show, saying that First Take has been at the forefront of promoting gender, race, age, and all forms of equality and respect.

Smith is 100% correct. This chap has been a champion of women, minorities, and even older media personalities, such as Christopher Russo, whom he has brought to a whole new audience on First Take. Stephen A. Smith is the Arsenio Hall and David Letterman of sports talk. When the syndicated Arsenio Hall Show hit the airwaves in 1989, he was the first late night host to bring hip-hop artists to center stage on a regular basis.

Similarly, Letterman’s “Late Night” on NBC showcased new talent in comedy and music, while bringing irreverence and originality to the tired old talk show format. Smith has done the same. He has made stars out of Ryan Clark, Mina Kimes, Marcus Spears, Kimberley Martin, and many others. He has also raised the profile of already renowned commentators such as Shannon Sharpe, Qerim, and the aforementioned Russo.

Smith has been a stalwart of equity, but that’s not what McNutt was saying. She was saying that with his audience, Smith could’ve talked about the WNBA thereby creating popularity and exposure for the league long before now.

McNutt’s jarring comment put Smith in a humbled position and really hit at his very core, but he took his game to a whole new level the very next day. McNutt was back on First Take, which right there shows the utter gumption that Smith possesses. He could’ve easily let things settle down a bit before he brought McNutt back on the show, but he didn’t. That’s classic Smith – encouraging discourse and disagreement.

When you get to the level of a Stephen A. Smith, you welcome a debating challenge. The last guests you want are sycophantic suck-ups who cowardly agree, no matter what the subject. Smith’s high point on the June 4 episode was when he said in a loud voice, “Caitlin Clark is white.”

He acknowledged the fact that it makes a difference. He also stated that black players who have been just as talented as Clark have not been given their rightful attention – also true. Regarding the perceived negative treatment of Clark by some WNBA players, Smith made it clear that they should not go easy on Clark on the court, but their mindsets need to recognize that Clark is benefitting the WNBA and putting dollars in their collective pockets.

Whether you agree with Smith or not, the fact is that this is what special players like Caitlin Clark do. They raise the level of discussion and simultaneously raise the profile of their respective sports. The WNBA is now in the A-block on highly rated shows like First Take and ESPN’s Get Up.

The league and its players are on the front burner of discussion for Smith, Nick Wright, Colin Cowherd and many other top-tier, multimedia sports debaters. This fact was straight up impossible one year ago. This is what Caitlin Clark has done.

Clark’s impact and stamp on women’s basketball is not unique. There are precedents where one person has made such a difference.

Larry Bird looked different, played different, restored a dead Celtics franchise, and made his mark in a sport that was on life support in terms of media coverage and fan interest. Bird and Magic Johnson rescued the league – a black man on the west coast and a white man on the east coast, two wunderkinds who changed the NBA forever. Caitlin Clark is Larry Bird.

Tiger Woods burst onto the PGA TOUR and won the Masters in 1997, embarking on a run that would see him change the game of golf from a competitive, performance, historic standpoint, and social standpoint. He was charismatic, focused, and yes, an African American phenom smashing records in a white-dominated sport. Caitlin Clark is Tiger Woods.

In 1965, Alabama quarterback Joe Namath eschewed the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and signed with the AFL’s New York Jets. He raised the profile of the league and garnered more attention and dollars than established AFL stars which made him a target. As the league’s popularity grew however, opposing players recognized his significance beyond the field. They did not go easy on him during games, just ask his knees, but they knew that his success was theirs as well. Namath was the key figure in the eventual AFL/NFL merger. Caitlin Clark is Joe Namath.

Serena Williams was smart, savvy, athletic, fashion conscious, and just plain great. Williams shattered the traditional mold and became an iconoclastic figure in women’s tennis with both her play and personae. The lineage with her sister Venus ushered in a new era in the sport. Serena attacked the game in a unique way. She was exciting and original, and lifted her sport and fellow athletes. Caitlin Clark is Serena Williams.

I am not saying that Clark will have a legendary or Hall of Fame career akin to these illustrious athletes, but the immediate impact she has had on her sport and the media coverage of her sport is similar.

As Smith so often states, Clark is “box office.” You can debate the reasons why, but you cannot debate the fact that she has supremely raised the profile and the financial prospects of women’s basketball and its players.

I understand that other WNBA players want their share of the credit for improving the league. I also understand that WNBA commentators want fairness and equity in terms of attention and the spotlight. However, both groups need to realize that Clark is the main reason that they are getting this increased exposure. On the court, be competitive against Clark and try to beat her and her team. On the air, be critical of Clark and analyze her game, but on a larger scale, understand, accept, and embrace that Caitlin Clark’s most important assist might just be to you.

John Molori
John Molorihttps://barrettmedia.com
John Molori is a weekly columnist for Barrett Sports Media. He has previously contributed to ESPNW, Patriots Football Weekly, Golf Content Network, Methuen Life Magazine, and wrote a syndicated Media Blitz column in the New England region, which was published by numerous outlets including The Boston Metro, Providence Journal, Lowell Sun, and the Eagle-Tribune. His career also includes fourteen years in television as a News and Sports Reporter, Host, Producer working for Continental Cablevision, MediaOne, and AT&T. He can be reached on Twitter @MoloriMedia.

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