Women's college basketball is having a historic moment

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(NEW YORK) -- While the 2023-2024 women's college basketball season may be over, the rise in interest in the sport is just beginning.

Women's basketball had a record-breaking year in terms of ticket sales, increased viewership, and even more Name, Image, and Likeness -- or NIL -- deals this past year.

"These are young women who received Title IX on full blast, they had the coaching, the interest from their parents, they are really the product of what this nation has created because of Title IX and how the nation has fallen in love with what it has created," ABC News contributor Christine Brennan told Good Morning America.

All five power conferences reported high ticket sales this season ahead of March Madness.

The University of Iowa alone has seen a 162% increase in average ticket sale prices from last season, according to Vivid Seats, a ticket resale company. Much of that is considered to be due to Iowa's star player, Caitlin Clark, and her NCAA record-breaking scoring this past season; the intense match-ups between Clark and Louisiana State University star Angel Reese; and the highly anticipated return of star opposing players like Paige Bueckers (University of Connecticut) and Kamilla Cardoso (University of South Carolina).

Following the South Carolina Gamecocks' win against Iowa in the NCAA Tournament Championship on Sunday night, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley credited Clark for a phenomenal season and for helping elevate the sport in the public eye.

"I want to personally thank Caitlin Clark for lifting up our sport," Staley said in her victory speech after Sunday's game. "She carried a heavy load for our sport."

Women's basketball has also seen a surge in viewership.

The Final Four matchup between UConn and Iowa on April 5 garnered 14.2 million viewers -- peaking at 17 million views, breaking ESPN viewership records at the time. Two days later, the NCAA Women's Basketball Final between Iowa and South Carolina garnered 18.7 million viewers, peaking at 24 million and becoming the most-watched women's college basketball game ever, according to ESPN, which cited Nielsen Fast Nationals figures.

Following an Elite 8 rematch between LSU and Iowa on April 1, which garnered an average of 12.3 million viewers, soccer phenom Megan Rapinoe, who won two World Cups with the U.S. women's national team, took to social media to praise the players, past and present.

"Dear Women's Basketball, I, Personally, am not shocked. And STILL, this is the most (incredible thing) to see," Rapinoe wrote in a since-expired Instagram story. "We don't deserve women's basketball. Thank you to all of you, college players and W players and all of them past and present."

Rapinoe continued, also giving a shoutout to partner and basketball legend Sue Bird. 

"We are ALL better off because of you. You all deserve this moment so deeply. Love, Megan," she wrote.

Women have defined the narrative around women in sports -- specifically basketball -- in recent years, with women athletes defying critics by proving themselves competitive, exciting and marketable.

It wasn't long ago when then-University of Oregon women's basketball player Sedona Prince called out the NCAA for discrepancies between the men's teams and the women's teams when it came to their respective weight rooms. Now, major brands and ad agencies are offering more airtime and NIL deals for women players.

NIL deals have become a game-changing contributor to the rising presence of women's basketball. According to Nick DePaula, who covers shoe endorsement deals on the Boardroom show The Sneaker Game and also writes for ESPN, 15 college women athletes are currently signed to nine brands, compared to just three college players on the men's side. These brands include Nike (Clark), Reebok (Reese) and New Balance (Stanford's Cameron Brink).

NBA players are taking notice and investing in women athletes, too. In March, South Carolina freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley signed a multi-year NIL shoe deal with four-time NBA Champion Steph Curry under his subsidiary brand with Under Armour.

As Clark, Cardoso and others prepare for the WNBA, the moment for women's hoopers is finally here -- and long overdue. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024 at 6:10AM by Jade Lawson, ABC News Permalink