No Caitlin Clark? Team USA women’s basketball will still be a big TV attraction at the Olympics

Caitlin Clark is fast approaching the status of LeBron James and Tim Tebow as an all-time content driver. She’s a force multiplier for attendance, social media interest and all the other metrics pro leagues use to determine popularity. She’s a comet for television viewership, the driving force behind the 18.9 million viewers who watched South Carolina’s win over Iowa in the NCAA women’s national championship game in April. She attracts opinions about women’s basketball from people who have rarely discussed the sport before.

We’re watching all of this explode in real time. Everybody wants a piece of Clarkonomics.

The latest point of debate surrounding Clark is her exclusion from the U.S. Olympic team. As someone who covered women’s college basketball for more than a decade at Sports Illustrated, I think the decision is the right one for basketball reasons. USA Basketball’s goal is to win, and there are better American perimeter players right now, including Arike Ogunbowale, whom I would have picked over both Clark and Diana Taurasi, who made the team. Kayla McBride would also have been ahead of Clark in terms of form if I were on the committee. (I would also have picked Dearica Hamby over Brittney Griner.) Sensible people can disagree on such things.

The person conducting the media clinic on all these issues is Clark herself.

There is a general consensus that Clark being in Paris will improve viewership and grow women’s basketball. The argument is that she should be there for marketing. However, given the past viewership of women’s basketball at the Olympics, you might wonder how many people have watched it before Clark arrived.

Here are the average viewership numbers for the last four women’s basketball gold medal games:

2021 (Tokyo): 7.9 million viewers (includes out-of-home measurement, a change Nielsen made in 2020);
2016 (Rio): 8.1 million viewers;
2012 (London): 10.2 million viewers;
2008 (Beijing): 5.9 million viewers.

The 2021 women’s gold medal match between Team USA and Japan in Tokyo started at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC amid COVID and still drew nearly 8 million viewers. The US win over Spain in 2016 started at 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. (The gold medal match in Paris will start at 9:30 a.m. ET on August 11. That’s not ideal, but I think viewership would still be strong if the US team was in it.)

NBC confirmed this week that the all-time record for Olympic women’s basketball viewership was the prime-time window on Aug. 4, 1996, when NBC aired the U.S. beating Brazil 111-87 in the gold-medal game in Atlanta. The entire viewership for that prime-time block averaged 23.4 million viewers and never dipped below 19.5 million for any quarter-hour of the game. That team was the jet fuel that led to the formation of the WNBA in 1997.

Several things can be true at once, which is easy to lose in an era of tribalism. Will Clarke grow viewership in Paris? Of course. The data from her college and WNBA games bears that out. There’s a good argument to be made that Clark becoming an Olympian will grow women’s basketball.

Molly Solomon, NBC’s executive producer and president of their Olympics production, offered some welcome insight into the possibility of including Clark in their broadcasts in Paris this summer.

“His impact on audiences will be undeniable, and perhaps even historic,” Solomon said. Athletic six weeks ago, “But I think it shows the depth of the WNBA so much that it begs the question of whether she’s going to make the roster. I think it would be amazing if she did. But I really feel like (NBC) has been pushing women’s Olympic basketball for a long time. We’ve always put the sport on a really high-profile platform, and we’re going to do the same here.

“When people ask me what the most interesting story of these Games is, I say the women’s team is going to win their eighth consecutive gold medal,” Solomon said. “That’s unprecedented in any Olympic sport. They haven’t lost a game since 1992. It’s amazing, this streak. So adding Kaitlyn to that team will create even more interest, and more people will realize the greatness of this team.”

That’s my point about viewership. The U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team is already in a class of its own — 54-0 in Olympic play since 1996 — and has sustained interest for multiple cycles. The notion that few people watched it before Clark is absurd and inaccurate.

But viewership and marketing aren’t really the issue here. The team must be there on merit, and the committee — which includes women’s basketball icons Dawn Staley, Seimone Augustus, Delisha Milton-Jones, Jennifer Rizzotti and WNBA league operations chief Bethany Donaphin — is tasked with winning. (On that note, Previous committees must be crushed (for not including Candace Parker in 2016)

That the U.S. will win, no matter who the 12th player on the roster is, is not a great argument for me to make the team, nor should it be for coach Cheryl Reeve, whose job is to win. Some people see it differently, and I can respect that. But I assure you people are going to watch this team in Paris, because that’s what history says.

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Team USA may have ‘awakened the demon’ by not selecting Clark for Olympics

(Photo of Team USA celebrating with the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics 2021: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)


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