For basically as long as sports have existed, they have been dominated by men. In the United States specifically, we are still not all that far away from the days when women completely lacked their own collegiate athletic programs and professional leagues. 

But now, times are changing, at least a little bit. If last weekend’s Women’s College Basketball National Championship was the first of its kind you’ve ever tuned into, you are not alone. The rematch between superstar guard Caitlin Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes and the undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks drew an estimated 19 million viewers on television, more than any single game of the 2023 NBA Finals or World Series. So, why the change?

To me, the biggest factor impacting the popularity of sports is the presence (or lack thereof) of star players and figures. There is no bigger draw to an event than the chance to witness the individual excellence of a renowned athlete. The likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and eventually Michael Jordan in the NBA are a perfect example. Their play completely elevated the league into the national limelight after it struggled for years post-inception to find its footing.

Applying that same thought process to women’s sports now, and especially women’s basketball, there are stars abound, beginning with Clark herself. Few athletes, man or woman, have captivated the sports world in the way Division I’s new all-time scoring leader has. Everything about Clark’s game and mannerisms on the court, from her logo threes to her well-justified trash talk, is ideal for generating fans and social media buzz. And maybe even more importantly, she plays at such a high level that the normally dismissive pickup game heroes at your local park have to stop and consider that no, they wouldn’t be able to beat her one-on-one.

To think Clark is solely responsible for this newfound appreciation would be shortsighted. A prevailing argument in the media and online has been that women’s college basketball this year simply had more star power across the board than their male counterparts, and I’m inclined to agree.

There’s LSU forward Angel Reese, who catapulted herself into stardom last year when her team took down Clark and Iowa in the national title game, throwing some of Clark’s banter back at her. There’s USC guard JuJu Watkins, who took over games on the offensive end time and time again, even scoring 51 points in a win over Stanford this year. Oh, and she did it all as a freshman. 

There’s Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers, the once prodigal child of the sport who overcame almost a year and a half of missed time due to injury to put together an All-American season this time around.

That’s only scratching the surface, but it’s telling that many otherwise uninterested sports fans have come to know the above names over recent months. More than just stars themselves, though, I think the heightened support for women’s sports also stems from the storylines that surround or have surrounded some of its biggest faces.

In the realm of gymnastics, for instance, Simone Biles has been dominating for almost a decade now. But at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, it was her withdrawal from competition that set the stage for teammate Suni Lee, who won over the hearts of the country as she stepped up at the last moment and won gold in the all-around competition.

Another example is Serena Williams, who along with her sister Venus has ruled women’s tennis for longer than I’ve been alive. But in some respects, it wasn’t until her return from pregnancy and subsequent farewell tour at the 2022 US Open that the sports world at large stopped to truly give her career the appreciation it deserves. 

Here at Fairfield, stars and storylines have helped bring greater attention to the success of many of our women’s sports programs. In the fall, volleyball claimed a conference title behind the exceptional performance of numerous players, including libero Kyla Berg ‘24 who put her name in the rafters of Mahoney Arena as she surpassed 1000 career digs. 

This winter, women’s basketball put together the best season in program history, winning 31 games alongside a perfect 23-0 year in conference play. They were bolstered by guard Janelle Brown ‘24, who won conference Player of the Year honors, and forward Meghan Andersen ‘27, who took home conference Rookie of the Year.

Now in the spring, multiple women’s programs are in the midst of more terrific seasons. Lacrosse has reached a national ranking of 23rd as they extended their win streak to 13 games this week, bolstered by several conference player of the week earners like Kelly Haggerty ’27 and graduate student Libby Rowe. Tennis has also gotten in on the fun, just this week clinching the conference regular season title.

Simply put, both at Fairfield and on the national level, we are living through a period of massive growth for women’s sports. And if you aren’t paying attention, then you’re missing out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.