A few days ago, I stumbled upon the pregame intro video for the Iowa women’s basketball team on X (formerly Twitter). Players were filmed inside a concert hall alongside an orchestra, and in the penultimate shot, a conductor is spreading her arms out in front of a stage. Immediately afterward, the video cuts to senior point guard and 2023 Naismith Player of the Year Caitlin Clark in the same position on stage, doing the same pose as the conductor, as the text “Welcome To The Show” pops up on the screen.
I thought this video was the perfect representation of how Clark is the maestro of my absolute favorite trend in college sports right now. Like a conductor, she was orchestrating not only her team but the larger-scale growth, discussion, and hype of women’s basketball. The power that she holds both on and off the court in her sporting world draws parallels to a conductor standing atop a podium, controlling music with the movement of their hands.
You asked, we listened 😎
— Iowa Women’s Basketball (@IowaWBB) November 9, 2023
Through her logo threes and mind-boggling plays in transition, Clark was also helping to bring in nearly ten million viewers from last season’s national championship game, 55,646 people who watched Iowa and DePaul scrimmage inside of Kinnick Football Stadium, sold-out Iowa season tickets for the first time in program history, and massive ticket price inflation for programs across the country.
All but two of Iowa’s away opponents this season have upped their ticket prices specifically for their matchup against the Hawkeyes, while teams like Northwestern, Northern Iowa, and Ohio State have already sold out their matchups against them. In other words, teams across the country are tripling or quadrupling their women’s basketball ticket prices for a singular team, driven by a singular star. This is like when Lionel Messi drove up MLS ticket prices when he came to Inter Miami, except that Messi was already arguably the most well-known athlete in the world. In this situation, the person responsible for causing the sudden interest in Iowa women’s basketball amongst programs hundreds of miles away from her is a collegiate women’s basketball player from Des Moines who was relatively unknown to the mainstream just a few years ago. It’s unbelievable.
So that brings us to what you all are probably asking right now—why am I talking about this on a swimming website?
The swimming community has an obsession with the idea of “growing the sport.” We talk about wanting to emulate the marketing tactics of collegiate sports like football and men’s basketball because those are the top two revenue-generating sports in the NCAA. However, swimming still has a long way towards getting to that level, as “jumping status” in a sport is going to take so much more than getting 1,000 fans at a dual meet.
But here we have Clark, who plays women’s basketball, a sport that has long been on the periphery of the athletics world and seen as an afterthought compared to its male counterpart. And yet despite all this, she continues to break a mold in a collegiate sports landscape where football and men’s basketball are seen as a default, drawing in millions of new fans and building a bigger brand than arguably any other NCAA basketball player in the country. What Clark has done to help elevate the profile of college women’s basketball should be a blueprint for everyone involved in a non-profit sport.
Using one superstar is one way of pushing a sport into the mainstream, and swimming has seen it happen with Phelps. But there are other ways of doing this, and that brings me to my next talking point—Nebraska women’s volleyball, and collegiate women’s volleyball as a whole.
Nebraska volleyball, like Iowa women’s basketball, hosted a matchup inside its school football stadium, garnering 92,000 in attendance to break the women’s sports attendance world record. This seemed to start a domino effect, as programs like Florida, Marquette, Arizona State, Indiana, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Michigan State all set program attendance records for volleyball this season. With more eyes on women’s volleyball than ever before from the world record, the sport also saw increased viewership on TV. The marquee No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between Nebraska and Wisconsin became the most-viewed volleyball game in Big Ten Network history, and Wisconsin-Minnesota generated an NCAA volleyball record of 1.66 million viewers when their game was placed on national TV network FOX. And just recently, it was announced that the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament selection show would be on ESPN2 for the first time.
To me, the causal relationship is clear here. Nebraska, a program with a massive fan culture (Nebraska volleyball was the only women’s collegiate program to generate profit in the 2021-22 season), did something spectacular, and people caught on. And because of this, people realized the potential that volleyball had as a sport and gave it more opportunities to grow.
They’ve created a machine. #2 Nebraska def. #1 Wisconsin, a thrilling game that lived up to the hype. Pulled in 612,000 television viewers on the Big Ten Network, the most ever for a regular season volleyball game (and more than the US National Swimming Championships drew even… https://t.co/DnR9dutDRQ
— Braden Keith (@Braden_Keith) October 24, 2023
And the waterfall goes on. Nebraska-Wisconsin volleyball saw a standing-room-only crowd — if you had $222 to shell out for those standing-room tickets on the secondary market.
In the next couple of years, expect to see an explosion in the popularity of several “niche” collegiate sports, especially on the women’s side. Media coverage for women’s sports nearly tripled over the last five years, and the NCAA was a big part of it. Big Ten senior director of television administration Grace McNamara identified women’s lacrosse, gymnastics, and softball as potential “growth sports”—hearing that made me realize just what swimming could be. Swimming as a sport might not have the same “growth potential” appeal to the mainstream media yet, and it might not ever in my lifetime. But the sport has everything it takes to get there, from exciting world-class superstars like Leon Marchand to innovative programs like Howard, UNCW, and Virginia. And to add on, swimming has one advantage that many other sports that I mentioned don’t have, which is the appeal of being one of the most popular events at the most renowned sporting event in the world: the Olympic Games.
Swimming doesn’t have as big of a platform or “easy to follow” format to generate interest in the same way that basketball and volleyball did, and it is going to take much longer to convince the higher-ups of the potential that swimming has. But there is a massive revolution of growth going on amongst non-profit sports that we’ve never seen before, and it’s all caused by people involved in those sports who care deeply about rising out of the shadows and making change. It seems like swimming hasn’t gotten to that point yet, but we should all be watching and learning. I don’t know the exact answers as to what swimming is going to latch onto and emulate from this trend, but making the sport more understandable and appealing to the casual viewer would be a good start. Awareness is the first step.
A superstar like our very own version of Caitlin Clark might do the trick to grow swimming. A compelling narrative like that of Erin Matson, the UNC field hockey coach who is leading her program a year after she won a national championship with the same team as a player the year prior, could work too—I’m sure her story is introducing many to field hockey for the first time. Or, in this new era of NIL, swimmers could use their social media platforms to draw more eyeballs to their sport.
The solution could also (and most likely will be) be a combination of very slow progress and structural change built over many years, in addition to one or two explosive trends that help push a sport over that final hurdle. Again, I don’t know exactly what it will take for swimming to rise in the way that Iowa basketball or Nebraska volleyball did, but the possibilities, as you can see, are endless.
It might sound cliche, but some of the developments in the NCAA have truly blown my standards of what’s possible for non-profit sports. And if everyone in the swimming community cares enough, then our sport can have its moment too.