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Although her marketing success is praised, Caitlin Clark raises issues of equity and race.

Before the Indiana Fever’s game against the Liberty on Saturday in New York, guard Caitlin Clark signs autographs for fans.
Photograph: Associated Press/Noah K. Murray


There has never been a guard as sweet-shooting as rookie guard Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever of the Women’s Basketball Association. She’s Mia Hamm in a singlet, Taylor Swift with a jump shot; she’s a figure so transcendent she’s altering her line of work.

Watching her play a practice game last fall drew over 55,000 spectators, and her final college game this spring attracted 24 million TV viewers. That’s three and a half times more people than watched Serena Williams’ last tennis match.

To watch her get drafted, over three million people watched her on ESPN. Following that, she signed a $28 million sponsorship contract with Nike, the largest in women’s basketball history, which included a trademark shoe. Less than a tenth of that was the value of Michael Jordan’s initial contract with Nike.

What then makes the twenty-two-year-old ponytailed Clark so unique? Although she is the greatest scorer in the history of women’s collegiate basketball, how many people are aware of Lynette Woodard, the player she defeated? Despite all of her solo successes, she has never taken home a state or national team championship.


Her ability to virtually blend in is what really sets her apart. Despite her skill, she is one of the tiniest players in the WNBA at 6 feet and 152 pounds.

On Saturday in New York, Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark drives to the basket while being pressured by New York Liberty forward Betnijah Laney-Hamilton.
Photograph: Associated Press/Noah K. Murray

“She looks like your mom,” remarked Ann Bastianelli, an Indiana University marketing professor and former collegiate basketball player. “I think many men and many people with very firm and rigid views of gender and sexual stereotypes would find these women frightening, as they are well over six feet tall, strong, athletic, determined, and all these other things.”

Clark makes it look so simple that everyone believes they can do it, even though she passes and shoots with the same laser-like precision as NBA player Stephen Curry.

According to Jemele Hill, a former ESPN personality and Emmy-winning sports journalist, “People love Steph Curry because he’s the Everyman.” “Caitlin Clark is similarly relatable.”

However, Clark—who will captain the Fever at Crypto.com Arena on Friday against the Sparks—stands out for the opposite of what she is. In a league in which around 70% of the players are Black, over a third identify as LGBTQ and most come from metropolitan backgrounds, Clark is white, straight and from Iowa.


Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark talks at a news conference Thursday in Indianapolis.
(Associated Press / Michael Conroy)

And that distinguishes her even more from her shooting prowess.

Hill, who is currently a contributing writer at the Atlantic and the presenter of the podcast “Jemele Hill is Unbothered,” stated, “We would all be very naive if we didn’t say race and her sexuality played a role in her popularity.” “There is a part of Caitlin’s success that is a little problematic because of what it says about the worth and the marketability of the players who are already there, even though so many people are happy for her—including the players; this has had such an enormous impact on the game.”

Nicole Melton, co-director of the University of Massachusetts Laboratory for Inclusion and Diversity in Sport, concurs.

For many Americans, “Cailtin fits a very comfortable narrative,” the spokesperson remarked. “She is a native of the Midwest. She has incredible talent. Is she likewise a heterosexual, white woman? Few things about the person’s accomplishment would cause others to feel uneasy.


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Maybe in a few WNBA locker rooms, though. The attention and wealth bestowed upon Clark, who has only played three professional games, have stoked considerable resentment among senior players who have endured years of low salary, commercial travel, and minimal media coverage. They believe that more than simply hoops is at stake, and that the marketing machine that has deified Clark is the real problem.

The Associated Press was told by Las Vegas player A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA champion and MVP, that “a lot of people may say it’s not about Black and White, but to me, it is.”


Even though you are an excellent Black lady, perhaps that’s something that others don’t want to see. No matter how hard I work, they don’t think it’s marketable. No matter what actions we take as Black women, we will all still be disregarded. Because of this, I find it infuriating when people claim that race is not a factor.

When asked about Wilson’s remarks, Clark opted to sidestep the criticism by discussing the wider issue.

“In women’s basketball, there are opportunities for every player,” the speaker stated. “Women’s basketball will advance if we can provide more opportunities for everyone.”

On Thursday in Indianapolis, fans watch guard Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever warm up for the team’s matchup against the New York Liberty.
(Associated Press / Michael Conroy)

However, Clark is entering a league that is poised for rapid expansion because of talents like Wilson. While revenue increased by almost $200 million, the WNBA’s 36 million unique TV viewers in 2023 was a 27% increase over the previous season. And whether by happenstance or design, commissioner Cathy Engelbert declared teams would be flying on charter flights this season, a month after Clark joined the league.

In the final year of the league’s current broadcast agreement, Clark might bring the WNBA record-breaking TV audiences, which could mean even more money for the league.


“With the rise of social media, exposure and accessibility have increased. Therefore, it can definitely bring a lot of tremendous attention when you have a prodigy like Caitlin Clark, who is kind of a product of that generation,” said Nneka Ogwumike, a forward for the Seattle Storm and the president of the players’ association.

For each WNBA player, that translates to improved working conditions and more compensation. The players applaud that, but according to Hill, many are still perplexed as to why brilliant, endearing women like Maya Moore, Candace Parker, and Brittney Griner didn’t receive the same kind of media attention when they were dominating the game.

In the 2016 WNBA playoffs, Sparks forward Candace Parker pulls down a rebound against the Chicago Sky.
(Associated Press / Kamil Krzaczynski)

It’s not a jealousy issue. It’s just the fact that in our society, Black women are often eliminated from the picture,” Hill said. “While everyone should be happy for Caitlin Clark’s success, there have been other instances where dynamic phenoms have helped to popularize the game. Simply said, they were lacking the same marketing muscle that seems to be extremely intentional about making sure Caitlyn Clark is a superstar, for whatever reason—it may be color, gender, or any number of other variables.

“These other companies, like Pepsi and Coke, didn’t rush to acquire Cheryl Miller. Thus, I believe that having several discussions at once is acceptable. There is more than enough space to acknowledge and applaud Caitlin Clark’s success while simultaneously talking about how to keep Black women in a league that they have created and are still creating.

Evidence exists to support the reality of erasure. Black players received noticeably less coverage, according to Melton and Risa Isard, a research fellow with the Laboratory of Inclusion and Diversity, who counted every mention of a current WNBA player in over 550 web pieces from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and CBS Sports four years ago.


For example, rookie Sabrina Ionescu, a white rookie who was the first overall pick and appeared in just three games that season, garnered half as much press as Black MVP Wilson.


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Though I believe it’s changing, it’s still there. There’s still an undercurrent, according to Melton. “[Clark] kind of rides on the backs of all the women who came before her, who have been constructing this narrative and bringing attention to the excellence of women’s sports, particularly basketball.”

Melton was present during Clark’s sold-out WNBA debut, a 21-point loss to the Connecticut Sun despite her 20 points and 10 turnovers. In her second game, the home opener for the Fever, Clark only managed nine points, and her team lost to the New York Liberty by 36 points. On Saturday, Clark rebounded with 22 points in an 11-point loss to the Liberty.

Melton found the crowd for Clark’s debut WNBA game to be significantly more diverse than the league’s media coverage.

“The atmosphere was simply incredible,” she remarked. You were diverse in terms of gender, color, and sexual orientation. It was a diverse group of people from all backgrounds coming together in one place.

In actuality, it was the kind of diversified crowd that the WNBA needs in order to thrive. Although many of those attendees had come to see Clark, they were as delighted by the performances of Alyssa Thomas of Connecticut, who recorded a league-high 12th triple-double, and DeWanna Bonner, who rose to seventh on the league’s all-time scoring chart. In the end, the WNBA and its players are hoping Clark will take on a role similar to that of a box office drawer who introduces new fans to incredible talents they may not have heard of.


On May 14, forward Nneka Ogwumike of the Seattle Storm runs the court prior to a game against the Minnesota Lynx.
(The Associated Press/Alika Jenner)

“A lot of people can currently access women’s basketball.” And that will provide them with the chance to not only come for what they are interested in, but also to find something new to learn,” stated Ogwumike. “However, as more people become interested in women’s basketball, they will also realize that our league is made up of a multitude of individuals who are capable of doing a variety of things.”

The bright glare of a spotlight that Clark, the league’s poster girl, never asked for, is burning her in the interim. Like Taylor Swift, she never had any interest in anything other than basketball, but suddenly she finds herself at the focus of long overdue political discussions that she did not initiate.

“I feel bad for Caitlin Clark because she didn’t ask for any of that,” Hill remarked in that context.

However, Hill went on, “her ability to compel responsibility. And that, in my opinion, is fantastic. The WNBA must now assess every action they take. The point is that her presence will compel an accountability in the sport that wasn’t always there, even though it’s disgraceful that they waited until they had the proper athlete to start acting in ways they could have been doing all along.

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