How the Caitlin Clark phenomenon mirrors Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson of 1979

How the Caitlin Clark phenomenon mirrors Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson of 1979

Caitlin Clark has captured America’s fancy like Bird and Magic did 45 years ago. Here's what women's basketball can do with that.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Apr 7, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Apr 7, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Mike Gundy walked off the Sherman E. Smith Center practice field Tuesday, headed for Boone Pickens Stadium across Hall of Fame Avenue, when he spied me standing alone, waiting to chat with Cowboy quarterback Alan Bowman.

Gundy already had spent about 28 minutes with the media earlier in the day, some of it press conference, some of it private conversation. We talked OSU spring practice and the future of college football and the many challenges facing the sport.

But two hours later, Gundy had something else on his mind.

He wanted to talk Caitlin Clark and Iowa.

“Did you see that game last night?” Gundy said of the Iowa-Louisiana State game, which drew more eyeballs than all but a few college games from last autumn.

The night before, at Antioch Community Church’s bimonthly dinner for the marginalized, I sat talking to a couple of guys I’ve gotten to know. They live on the edge. Not homeless, but one step up. One has no television; the other has no cable.

Guess what they wanted to talk about? Caitlin Clark and LSU-Iowa.

Maybe that’s why a Times of London headline the other day blared that Clark “could be the world’s most influential athlete.”

Clark’s consecutive showdowns against LSU’s Angel Reese and Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers and, Sunday in the NCAA championship game, against the unbeaten South Carolina Gamecocks, have captured the nation’s fancy. Women’s basketball has become a cultural phenomenon.

Clark on Saturday hailed all the great players and pioneers who came before, who played in front of few people with little fanfare.

“Now you’re seeing we are on ESPN … people are, like, ‘wow, this is so much fun to watch,’” Clark said Saturday in Cleveland, site of the women’s Final Four. “They can’t get enough of it. It is scheduled in their night. They’re sitting down and watching.”

Clark tosses in 30-footers when the game is on, then pitches for State Farm during commercial breaks. America can’t get enough of the Iowa senior, and everyone is talking about what the Clark sensation can do for women’s basketball and women’s sports and the WNBA and women’s marketing and women in general. All valid questions.

But let’s pinpoint it down to what it can do for the NCAA women’s tournament in particular, because I’ve seen this script before.

  1. NCAA men’s tournament. Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson.

Hard to believe it’s been 45 years, but college basketball’s 1979 championship game remains a seminal moment in the sport. It jumpstarted the NBA, with a decade of glorious Bird/Magic rivalry games with the Celtics and Lakers, respectively, setting the stage for Michael Jordan.

Rest assured, another Caitlin Clark will come along, surpassing even her current status. But don’t tell me Clark can’t transform the WNBA; we’ve seen it happen on the men’s side of the hardwood.

Magic’s Michigan State Spartans beat Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores 75-64 on that Monday night in Salt Lake City, and CBS drew a 24.1 television rating for the game. That equated to roughly 40 percent of American television viewers that night, tuned in to basketball.

Seth Davis’ When March Went Mad details the effect of that game. 

“What fun it used to be when we could still be surprised,” wrote Frank Deford, as good a pick as any as America’s greatest sports storyteller ever, about Davis’ book and those different times. “When a whole sport could be turned upside down, right before our wondering eyes.”

That’s what Caitlin Clark, with help from Angel Reese and LSU coach Kim Mulkey and wounded power UConn and new behemoth South Carolina, has done to women’s basketball.

It’s what Bird and Magic did 45 years ago. And now it’s happening again.

“Everybody kind of pooh-poohed women’s basketball 25 years ago, whenever it was, and it wasn’t given the respect that it deserved back then,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Friday, after Iowa eliminated his Huskies 71-69 in the national semifinals.

“So people didn’t know who their idols were. People didn’t know who they wanted to emulate because they never saw them — until their dads got to be in their 30s and had little girls and actually started taking them to the games, then all these little girls wanted to be like who? Whoever was on their team at the college where they went to the games.

“And now kids that have never seen these two kids play in person are the biggest fans and they idolize these kids. It’s become a mainstream sport now because when little kids start wearing your jerseys and start wanting to grow up like you, that means you really touched a nerve.”

Women’s basketball had a fan base before Caitlin Clark. But a mainstream fan base? No. Just like men’s basketball had a fan base in the 1970s, but without the national allure the NCAA Tournament enjoys today.

Men’s college basketball was stale in the 1970s. The decade began in the middle of the UCLA dynasty (10 NCAA titles in 12 years, 1964-75). Most early-round NCAA Tournament games were on syndicated television; some were not televised at all. The Final Four was played in college venues like Maryland’s Cole Field House, the Greensboro Coliseum and Utah’s Huntsman Center.

But the end of the UCLA dynasty brought more parity to the sport, and men’s basketball was primed for the arrival of Bird and Magic, two epic players.

And looked what they begat. From that NCAA Championship Game came television interest; fledgling ESPN bought rights to the early-round games in 1980 , and in 1982 CBS bought the rights to the entire tournament. That’s the year that CBS’ Brent Musburger trotted out an old Illinois high school phrase, March Madness, which stuck for the NCAAs and now is synonymous with the event.

The NCAA bracket went from 40 in 1979 to 48 in 1980 to 52 in 1983 to 53 in 1984 to the perfect 64 in 1985. The advent of the 64-team bracket created an explosion of fans filling out the bracket, which brought in fans who didn’t know if a basketball was blown up or sewn up. All stemming from that spark of Bird vs. Magic.

So how can women’s basketball benefit from this gift of Caitlin Clark & Friends?

A couple of ways. In the same way that Bird and Magic set up the men’s tournament for unprecedented growth, the same opportunity exists for the women.

First, make the early rounds more interesting. The men did it by televising the games. The women should do it by eliminating homecourt advantages.

Let’s be honest. The NCAA women’s tournament starts with the Sweet 16. We watched Caitlin Clark because she’s Caitlin Clark, not because we wondered what would happen.

Two thirds of the 48 women’s games played in the first weekend are virtually pre-determined. Home teams went 29-3 in the 2024 tournament. The lowest-seeded teams to reach the Sweet 16 were No. 5 Baylor (won at UCLA), No. 5 Colorado (won at Kansas State) and No. 7 Duke (won at Ohio State).

Among the road losers was OU, which lost a back-and-forth game at Indiana, and those Hoosiers then lost 79-75 to South Carolina in the regional semifinals. We know the Sooners and all their warts, but on the road they played to the wire a team that took the mighty Gamecocks to the wire.

Parity indeed is coming fast to women’s basketball, but homecourts are a major roadblock.

There are scant Cinderellas in the women’s bracket. That’s the next stage of popularity, when NCAA success reaches the longshot schools.

Move the first two rounds to neutral sites. The NCAA tried that awhile back, the crowds were meager and the games scurried back to the comfort of packed houses but virtually-predetermined results. Trust your product, believe in the gains grown by Caitlin Clark and go to neutral sites.

And here’s another idea. Move the tournament back a month.

I’ve long been after the men to move to April madness, to get the sport away from king football and its grip on American eyeballs, but the men’s tournament is too tied in with CBS to move. CBS wants the tournament finished the first weekend of April, to make room for the Masters.

Fine. Move the women’s tournament.

The men and women have been going head to head since the advent of the women’s tournament. The women’s games are televised by ESPN, which is a much better marketer than the CBS/Turner Sports tandem with the men.

Men’s and women’s games go head-to-head on three days the first weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday). Six of the eight Sweet 16 games, and one of the four regional finals, were televised opposite the men’s tournament. 

That’s a lot of split audience. If the men are too stubborn, the women should move their season. Take advantage of a better season launch and put your tournament on its own separate stage.

Take advantage of the Caitlin Clark phenomenon, just like the men’s tournament did when March went mad.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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