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

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

We’re seeing all of this explode in real-time. Everyone wants a piece of Clarkonomics.

The latest debate to rage around Clark is over 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 correct for basketball reasons. USA Basketball’s goal is to win, and there are better American perimeter players right now, including Arike Ogunbowale, who I would have selected over both Clark and Diana Taurasi, who made the team. Kayla McBride would also be ahead of Clark on form if I were on the committee. (I also would have picked Dearica Hamby over Brittney Griner.) Reasonable people can disagree on such things.

The person who has put on a media clinic for all of these issues is Clark herself.

One common opinion is how having Clark in Paris would improve viewership and grow women’s basketball. The argument is that she should be there for marketing. Looking at previous women’s basketball viewership at the Olympics, though, you might be surprised how many people have watched before Clark’s arrival on the scene.

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

2021 (Tokyo): 7.9 million viewers (which 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 women’s gold-medal game between Team USA and Japan in Tokyo in 2021 tipped off at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC, amid COVID, and still drew nearly 8 million viewers. The U.S. win over Spain in 2016 tipped at 2:30 p.m. ET on a Saturday. (The gold-medal game from Paris will tip off at 9:30 a.m. ET on Aug. 11. That’s not ideal, but I bet the viewership number is still strong if the U.S. team makes it.)

The all-time Olympic women’s basketball viewership record, NBC confirmed this week, was the prime-time window on August 4, 1996, when NBC aired the U.S. defeating Brazil 111-87 in the gold-medal game in Atlanta. The entire viewership window for that prime-time bloc 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.

Multiple things can be true at once, which easily gets lost in an era of tribalism. Would Clark add viewership in Paris? Unquestionably. The data for her college and WNBA games confirms this. There is a good-faith argument that women’s basketball would grow with Clark as an Olympian.

Molly Solomon, NBC’s executive producer and president of their Olympics production, offered some welcome nuance about the prospect of having Clark on her airwaves this summer in Paris.

“Her impact on viewership would be undeniable and maybe even historic,” Solomon told The Athletic six weeks ago, “but I do think it speaks so much to the depth of the WNBA that it’s a question whether she’s going to make the roster. I think it’d be amazing if she could. But I really feel like (NBC has) been lifting up women’s Olympic basketball for a long time. We’ve always put the game on really high-profile platforms, and we’re going to do the same thing here.

“When people ask me about what are the most fascinating storylines for these Games, the women’s team is going for its eighth straight gold medal,” Solomon continued. “That’s unprecedented in any Olympic sport. They haven’t lost a game since 1992. It’s amazing, that streak. So adding Caitlin to that team would create even more intrigue, just getting more people to realize the greatness of this team.”

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

But viewership and marketing isn’t really the point here. The team should be about merit, and the committee — consisting of women’s basketball icons Dawn Staley, Seimone Augustus, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Jennifer Rizzotti and WNBA head of league operations Bethany Donaphin — is charged with winning. (On that note, previous committees should be crushed for the omission of Candace Parker in 2016).

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

GO DEEPER

Team USA may have ‘woke a monster’ by not picking Clark for Olympics

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

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