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Caitlin Clark Captures America’s Heart

Caitlin Clark Captures America’s Heart

By Todd Davis

What is it about an athlete that propels them from greatness within their sport to superstar status in popular culture? Mike Tyson. Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. Tom Brady. The appeal of these athletes transcended what they did in sports. They became movements. Brands that people flocked toward and wanted to be a part of even if they had only a passing interest in the accomplishments occurring within the sport itself. Caitlin Clark, the former Iowa Hawkeye phenom and now a member of the Indiana Fever, is primed to join the ranks of these iconic athletes who changed the way Americans thought about the sports they played, and more importantly, themselves. 

“Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”

Like all great athletes, Caitlin Clark had remarkable talent from an early age. She was so skilled as a young girl that she started playing competitive basketball against boys. The University of Iowa first heard about her when she was in sixth grade. Clark averaged 32.6 points as a Junior in high school and scored 60 points in a game versus Mason City. Caitlin was a five-star basketball prospect and ranked 4th in her recruiting class in 2020. Clark, was never an underdog.

And yet, Caitlin’s choices and path began to take the form of an underdog. We, as Americans, love nothing more than underdogs. Clark was a home state girl, attending Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines, Iowa. She chose to go to Iowa, spurning traditional Women’s Basketball powers like UConn or the preeminent Catholic university in the nation, Notre Dame.  Clark said about her choice to go to Iowa,

Just being so close to home, I can see my family all the time. Honestly, there isn’t any place better for me, and I truly believe that.

Iowa has never won a National Championship in Women’s Basketball. Clark could have chosen to be part of a stacked UConn or LSU team where she would have been almost guaranteed to win multiple titles. Instead, she chose to stay home. 

I didn’t want to do something that everyone else was doing. That’s kind of part of my story, that’s one of the reasons I came to Iowa. It just kind of aligns with who I am.

Clark had phenomenal success at Iowa almost instantly becoming one of the best players in the sport as a freshman. However, she remained mostly under the radar of sports fans due to the low profile of women’s basketball. It wasn’t until her junior year that Clark started to get national attention based on the exciting style of basketball she plays, wide-open, creative, and capable of making jaw-dropping three-pointers while running the Hawkeyes from the point like Steph Curry runs the Golden State Warriors.

Out of high school, I could have gone really wherever I wanted to. I love the University of Iowa, I love the people, I love my team.

Caitlin’s junior year ended in a defeat in the National title game where the Hawkeyes lost to LSU. The game became memorable when LSU forward Angel Reese taunted Clark as the game was coming to a close repeatedly pointing to her ring finger showing Clark that she was getting the ring despite Clark’s more prominent profile. This became a national sports story, a morality play about how to win with grace and lose with dignity. Unfairly or not, Reese was vilified and Clark was elevated. The underdog legend grew. Even Rocky lost to Apollo in the first movie. 

“I wanted to play for this school because I love the state of Iowa.”

Iowa is Americana. Corn fields. State fairs. Baseball. Fields of Dreams. As Americans, most of us have never been to Iowa but we have a romanticized image in our heads of what it looks like. Iowa represents something pure, something traditional, something that still exists in flyover country that has been lost on the coasts. There is a yearning for American flags waving in the breeze above maize fields at magic hour. Caitlin Clark became a personification of this.

During January and February when the NFL ratings juggernaut began to wind down, America’s fascination with Clark took off. Caitlin was chasing down record after record her senior season. Every game it seemed like she was etching her name into the record books. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was an impossible ticket to get that was a given, but so was every Big Ten arena that Clark and the Hawkeyes visited. Tickets on the secondary market soared into the hundreds of dollars range usually reserved for the Rolling Stones and Taylor Swift. Everyone wanted to see this phenomenon from Iowa.

Caitlin never disappointed. Never buckled under the pressure and scrutiny. She chased down “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s all-time NCAA basketball scoring record. Leading her Iowa Hawkeyes to a #1 seed in the Women’s Basketball Tournament. Most of us only know Pistol Pete as a piece of grainy old highlight footage. A relic from a bygone era. Here was Clark, in living color, making impossible, heat check shots, a living legend in our era. 

Along the way, she captured millions of hearts. After midweek basketball games, girls and boys would be lined up five deep along the entire court looking for a Clark autograph, a Clark handshake, a Clark smile. This was the first real anti-Covid counter-reaction. People wanted to be in a community together celebrating something. They wanted to be near Clark. It would take Caitlin a half hour to get off the court as she went down the sidelines signing shirts, photos, programs, and pennants. Kids who had their ten seconds with Clark lit up like they’d met Santa Claus clutching a piece of memorabilia they will hold for years, decades to come. 

 Clark didn’t only set records and win basketball games. She looked like she loved her sport, her team, her university. It wasn’t hard to juxtapose this with a love for her country as well. At a time when so much of the volume is turned up on why we should hate America, Caitlin gave us a reason to love it again. She loved what she was doing and so we loved her for it.

March Madness

Millions of Americans fill out a NCAA Tournament bracket in March. March Madness is a cultural event where people who don’t watch college basketball all year tune in for the drama and upsets – in the Men’s tournament. March 2024 was the first time the Women’s tournament had buzz. People were talking about Iowa and Caitlin Clark. Her popularity elevated the entire sport to a level previously unseen. 

Iowa faced a gauntlet of teams, teams collectively better than Iowa, but those teams didn’t have Clark. In the Elite 8, Iowa defeated the defending National Champion LSU Tigers, with Clark reversing the tables on Angel Reese. Caitlin didn’t mock Reese in revenge for the previous season. Win with dignity, lose with grace. She visibly broke LSU’s spirit with a barrage of 3-pointers. The look on Angel Reese’s face said it all, how can we beat that?

Facing basketball powerhouse UConn in the Final Four, Clark’s Hawkeyes again prevailed, by a single basket, propelling them into the Championship game for a second straight year. Game after game, the Hawkeyes were setting all-time viewership records. Iowa-LSU set the mark for the most-watched Women’s basketball game ever. It would be broken by Iowa-UConn, and broken again by Iowa-South Carolina, which was the highest-rated ESPN basketball game (of any type) ever. America was enthralled with Iowa. The Hawkeyes had pulled off the near impossible, being the underdogs and being exciting good at the same time. 

If this were a movie, the story would end like Rocky II. Clark would face undefeated South Carolina, a juggernaut of a team loaded with talent, and win on a last-second buzzer-beater. Life is not a movie and Clark would not get a ring. After Clark, South Carolina had the next six best players on the court. The magical ride ended in defeat although that did nothing to diminish the story. Clark broke through the Michael Jordan mindset that winning titles is the only achievement that counts. She reminded us that it is the journey that matters, not the destination. 

Commercial Superstar

Iowa vs South Carolina drew more viewers than any game in the NCAA Men’s Tournament. But that wasn’t all. It drew more viewers than any NCAA football game that didn’t involve the National Champion Michigan Wolverines. It drew more than any MLB World Series game. Outdrew any NHL Stanley Cup hockey game. Clark and Iowa outdrew NBA playoff games. America wanted to see Caitlin Clark, #22 from West Des Moines, drop shots from the logo and flash finger-formed hearts to her family in the crowd. 

Corporate entities took notice and commercial opportunities were rolled out. Clark has become the face of Gatorade, a brand, in part, that Michael Jordan made famous. She joined the State Farm family of athletes appearing with Jake from State Farm in a commercial with Jimmy Butler. It won’t be long before she’s flying solo in the State Farm spots.

Caitlin Clark’s rise to being the face of State Farm is significant. She replaces an athlete like Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback known for being snarky, passive-aggressive, obtuse, arrogant in his beliefs, and too clever for the room. Rodgers with his darkness retreats and long history of animosity toward his family is an abrasive figure in American sports. Blessed with supreme talent Rodgers has always been respected but never loved. He spent the majority of his career in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a tiny spot in flyover country and never let you forget that he was, deep down, too good for this place. He belonged in New York, and that is where he went. 

Cailin is the antithesis of Rodgers. Pure, joyful, a uniter who brings people together. Clark embraces where she is from, choosing in fact, to stay in Iowa when she could have gone anywhere else in the country. During Iowa games when she’s on the bench she’s rooting as hard for her teammates as she does coming off screens on the court. Caitlin looks like she’s playing for the love of the game. Americans are drawn to that like kids to fireworks on a hazy July night. Rodgers is eye rolls and barbed podcast takes. Clark is cornfields and apple pie. 

The commercials are one thing, many athletes have been in commercials. Caitlin reached the pinnacle of popular culture by appearing on Saturday Night Live. Joining the Weekend Update desk, Clark beamed her smile to all of America telling a series of jokes at the expense of Michael Che. A little stiff reading the teleprompter, that was to be expected since it was her first rep in front of a National TV audience like this, Clark’s charisma shined when she ad-libbed lines. This combination of personality, charisma, and all-American looks is gold for advertisers. Clark will have countless future commercial opportunities and the pressure and expectations that come with them. 

Weight of a Sport

Remarkably, Clark didn’t buckle under the pressure at Iowa. Scandal or controversy didn’t emerge around her. Clark didn’t wilt under the unfathomable burden of representing all of women’s basketball. She carried the weight of the entire sport on her shoulders every time she took the court. Many people who had never even seen a woman’s basketball game before were now tuning in to watch her. Iowa was a team that needed Clark to score 25, or 30 points a night to win and Caitlin was playing before sold-out arenas, at home and on the road. Every time she played knowing that most of the people there, many of them kids, were there to see her. And every time, she delivered a show they wouldn’t soon forget.  

Other iconic figures, Mike Tyson and Tiger Woods, both were generational talents in sports that didn’t have mainstream popularity. Their success elevated boxing and golf making it must-see viewing and a part of American popular culture. People wanted to see the pure unbridled aggression of Mike Tyson with his colossal knockouts and the naked fear he struck in his ring opponents. Tiger Woods broke every attendance mark that existed in golf drawing massive crowds, pushing golfer salaries through the roof, and launching entire product lines like Nike Golf. 

Ultimately, being the singular focus of their sport was too much for Tyson and Woods. Both fell victim to inner demons unable to maintain a sense of balance and normalcy as the sole face of their sports where they were required to dominate every time they competed. People adored them, but more specifically, people adored the way they crushed their competition. Clark will face similar expectations in the WNBA. People want Clark to be the best their ever was, the Natural, their connection to greatness to be witnessed and celebrated on a Monday night in May. 

Caitlin Clark has the infrastructure in place to help her succeed. Her parents are a noticeable presence at every game and have backgrounds in athletics and coaching. Clark, known for her demonstrative emotions during games, was told by her father to stop complaining to the referees after every call during the tournament. And she did. We didn’t see her doing it after that. Brent Clark, Caitlin’s dad, advised his daughter;

You gotta stay away, sometimes, from the social media. There’s always going to be somebody who’s gonna want to see you fall,” he said. “Whether you’re the President of the United States or some other high-profile person, there’s about 50% lined up against you, 50% lined up for you.

Clark has the support system to succeed in the face of the tension and expectations she will face upon becoming a professional and entering the WNBA. It’s unfair, really. Caitlin will be asked to be the face of the league before she’s even played a game. Most people will be able to name one WNBA player – Caitlin Clark. Even with her strong familial and Catholic background, you need a little luck to deal with this type of scrutiny and expectations. Clark got a break because the team with the #1 pick in the WNBA wasn’t New York or Los Angeles. It was Indiana. 

Indiana isn’t Iowa, But it’s Close

Where a professional athlete goes has a significant, almost decisive effect on their careers. Kobe Bryant wouldn’t have become Kobe Bryant had he played in Charlotte. Tom Brady never ascends to become Tom “freakin” Brady if he’d been drafted by the Cleveland Browns. 

The WNBA draft wasn’t a thing before Caitlin Clark. Oh, it existed, but more people watched Bob Ross paint landscapes than they did the draft. Clark changed that. Viewership of the draft was up a staggering 328% this year. ESPN did an excellent job of combining an Oscars Red Carpet show with draft coverage, potentially setting the stage for how future broadcasts would be covered. 

The Indiana Fever, a team most of America didn’t know existed before April, had the first pick in the draft. Indiana isn’t Iowa, but it is close. If you ask most Americans to name two things they think of when Indiana comes up you’d get; the Indianapolis 500 and the movie Hoosiers, both part of American lore in their own right. Indiana has a rich basketball history from French Lick and Larry Bird to Bobby Knight at Indiana University. 

Hoosiers is the story of an underdog basketball team led by Jimmy Chitwood that makes the State basketball finals. The movie has a special place in basketball myth touching on all those things that draw people to Caitlin Clark. Underdogs from somewhere in Americana, defying the odds and rising to the top. If you were making a female Jimmy Chitwood in a lab she would look and play a lot like Caitlin Clark. 

Clark is going to a market that accentuates all the things that make her endearing to fans. Already bearing the heavy weight of the sport on her shoulders, Clark won’t have to deal with the added burden of a hostile New York media that builds up players only to tear them down. Indiana has the Pacers and Colts, but neither are immense brands. Notre Dame is the biggest brand in the state. Caitlin will have the opportunity to grow support for the Fever which would have been impossible in a place like Los Angeles. The infrastructure is in place to sustain and grow Clark’s Iowa appeal.

From Rookie to Logo?

Clark and the Fever started playing their season this past week. The WNBA season lasts 40 games. All of the Fever’s games are sold out. Connecticut sold out its season opener against the Fever, the first time it’s played to a capacity crowd in two decades. 38 of the Fever’s 40 games will be broadcast on national television. The WNBA realizes it has something special here with Clark, something fans are hungry to consume. The league has devised a clever marketing campaign to introduce viewers who are watching the league for the first time because of Clark to the WNBA. Still, more could be done to facilitate Clark’s transition from collegiate superstar to the face of the WNBA.

Indiana was scheduled in its first four games against New York and Connecticut, two of the top three teams in the league, playing each twice. Three of these games resulted in lopsided losses for the Fever, who was the worst team in the league last season. Compare this to the NFL where the league made sure the Chicago Bears, which drafted Caleb Williams, a potential franchise-changing quarterback, wouldn’t play the best teams in its division until Thanksgiving. The NFL wants to make sure it has given Williams plenty of runway to get acclimated to being a professional before throwing him into games against the top competition. 

Despite an unfavorable schedule, Clark surpassed 20 points in two of her first three games, including her best game of the year in New York on a network-televised 1 PM Saturday ABC game, a slot usually reserved for the likes of LeBron James and Steph Curry. 

Clark is facing some animosity from players in the league, women who feel that they’ve been here for years, and now along comes this kid from Iowa that everyone wants to give flowers to and anoint as the greatest of all time. Professional envy is nothing new in sports. Tiger Woods faced the same challenges on the PGA Tour. However, it wasn’t long before his fellow golfers realized that when people came to events, watched tournaments on television, and bought golf apparel because of Tiger, the entire sport made more money. Which meant they were all making more money too. 

Women in the WNBA will hopefully realize the same thing. Clark has a chance to elevate the league to a place it’s never been. Currently, the WNBA is barely solvent. It would have folded years ago if it weren’t subsidized by the NBA. Caitlin Clark can change all of that. She is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the league. She can become the logo, the face of the league that every young girl aspires to be. The WNBA should be helping her to get there, Clark’s incredible talent and personality will do the rest. And based on what we’ve seen so far, America will be coming along for the ride.  



Todd Davis

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