Caitlin Clark expected to push Fever, WNBA to new heights

Keywords College Sports / Fever
  • Comments
  • Print
Listen to this story

Subscriber Benefit

As a subscriber you can listen to articles at work, in the car, or while you work out. Subscribe Now
This audio file is brought to you by
Loading audio file, please wait.
  • 0.25
  • 0.50
  • 0.75
  • 1.00
  • 1.25
  • 1.50
  • 1.75
  • 2.00

ESPN basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo says Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark is not only wildly popular, but “she’s also an unselfish … player with a down-to-earth personality, who I think fits so perfectly in the Midwest.” (AP photo)

Indianapolis has a case of Caitlin Clark fever.

In the week since the University of Iowa Hawkeyes guard announced her plans to go pro, interest in tickets for Indiana Fever games—both at home and on the road—have spiked, and the team has coyly teased social media with posts playing into the news.

Sports executives, fans and outside observers predict a defining moment April 15 for the Fever and the city’s sports scene as a whole, when Indiana is expected to choose Clark first overall in the WNBA Draft.

Fever management is walking a tightrope because the franchise is not permitted to declare its plans to draft the superstar, even as experts consider it a foregone conclusion. Clark herself appears in social media activity to have embraced the idea of playing in Indiana. The Fever declined through a spokesperson to comment for this story.

The opportunities Clark could bring to the team and its parent company, Pacers Sports & Entertainment, seem endless, experts told IBJ.

That’s not only because of Clark’s talent and command of the game but also because of her marketability, which has been bolstered by NCAA rule changes that allow college athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness.

Clark is the defending National Player of the Year and last week became the all-time scoring leader in Division I basketball. All of Iowa’s home games this season have sold out, as have most of the team’s road conference games, particularly as Clark neared various NCAA scoring records.

Likewise, the Big Ten Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament, in Minneapolis this year, is sold out for the first time ever.

ESPN basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo told IBJ she’s not surprised Clark decided to declare for the draft even though she had one more year of playing eligibility. The move, Lobo said, will likely bolster not only Clark but also the WNBA for years to come.

“She’s the most exciting college player and the most popular college player that we’ve seen come along in the women’s game in a couple of decades,” Lobo said. “But she’s also an unselfish … player with a down-to-earth personality, who I think fits so perfectly in the Midwest.”

Lobo said Clark “will have her pick” of companies to work with for endorsements. And she said the moves Clark has already made with her NIL deals show a strong business acumen.

Clark has NIL relationships with several major WNBA sponsors—Nike, Gatorade and State Farm—as well as Hy-Vee, an Iowa grocery chain that plans to expand to central Indiana. On Tuesday, she was also announced as a spokesperson for Zionsville-based Group 1001, whose Gainbridge brand adorns the fieldhouse where the Fever play. Many of those deals could carry forward into her WNBA career.

According to On3, an online publication that follows college athletics and NIL deals, Clark is among the most valuable U.S. college athletes, estimating her potential NIL value at $910,000 a year.

“Her marketability is extremely high right now, and I think it’s just a starting point,” said Pete Nakos, a reporter for On3. “As her fame continues to grow, more and more brands will want to try to align themselves with the Caitlin Clark name, so I think all this is really just a starting point.”

Nakos, who has followed Clark’s deals closely this season, projected that her professional sponsorships could be worth $3.1 million a year.

Once in a generation

Dan Towriss

In written responses to questions, Group 1001 CEO Dan Towriss said Gainbridge has been in discussions with Clark’s representatives since mid-November—before the Fever won the WNBA Draft Lottery to secure the No. 1 pick. Financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed.

Clark will market two Gainbridge products in advertising set to air during March Madness: ParityFlex, an annuity designed for women focused on creating retirement income, and FastBreak, a tax-deferred annuity focused on bigger yields and earlier access to funds.

Towriss said the company was interested in partnering with the athlete on a multiyear deal whether she declared for the draft this year or used her final year of NCAA eligibility to return to Iowa.

“Caitlin is a once-in-a-generation talent, and she is bringing record-breaking audiences to women’s basketball and women’s sports,” Towriss said. “Gainbridge’s investment in sports marketing and women athletes is a key part of our growth strategy and aligns with our commitment to building financial products for women and the next generation of investors.”

Michelle Perry, CEO of Indianapolis-based Gamechangers Consulting, said Clark’s star has brightened—and could bring big opportunities to the Fever—in large part because of college athletes’ new chance to profit from corporate partnerships. She said it means the companies that have already put their weight behind her will look to stick with her once she’s in the pros.

“Companies have invested in her because they see that she shares similar values or that she can provide them with a return on investment,” said Perry, who was director of women’s basketball at the NCAA from 2002 to 2012. “That doesn’t change whether she’s playing in Iowa City or playing in Indianapolis.”

Beth Goetz

Beth Goetz, director of athletics for the University of Iowa, agreed.

“Brands both big and small have been able to find student athletes that align with what they represent—and to be able to use [NIL] and draw attention both to the individual student athlete and our university, as well as to their brand, has a lot of value,” she said.

“I think that they would all say it’s been really rewarding for everybody involved, and I think [Clark’s success is] a great example of what it was intended to do.”

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Clark creates opportunities to grow the sport. The league has already been building a stable of household names, Engelbert said, with players like the Fever’s Aliyah Boston, New York’s Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart, and Las Vegas’ A’ja Watson. But NIL deals are now developing big names before athletes join the WNBA.

“They’re entering a league with big personal brands already,” Engelbert said. “That’s going to help us get the exposure and recognition I think the WNBA has always deserved.”

(AP photo)

A tough ticket

The Indiana Fever have not said how much Clark’s announcement about going pro has boosted ticket interest. In a statement, Pacers Sports & Entertainment said only that the team has seen a “spike in ticket inquiries” for the 2024 season stemming from extensive online and social media enthusiasm.

The Fever have also not yet opened ticket sales. But based on what’s happening in other markets, ticket prices this year will likely skyrocket. In 2023, the team had the league’s second-worst attendance, with an average 4,067 fans per game, and an average ticket price of about $60, according to Vivid Seats.

Kyle Anderson

Kyle Anderson is a clinical professor of business economics at IUPUI. He said Clark will significantly boost the bottom line for the Fever and the WNBA as a whole. He and many other industry observers are calling the impact “Clarkonomics.”

“I think it’s going to be huge, and we’re going to see very high demand for Fever tickets this summer,” Anderson said. “People [will] come from around the state to watch her play, so I think that demand and price is going to be much higher” than in years past.

That could mean a boost for Indianapolis tourism.

Mayor Joe Hogsett told IBJ he is “confident” Clark’s likely arrival will bring extensive energy and buzz throughout the summer and could further bolster interest in downtown alongside Indianapolis Indians baseball games.

“For the past several years, the city of Indianapolis has been executing a downtown resiliency strategy focused on improving quality of life and shaping a downtown that top talent would want to live in. And yet, no one could have predicted the level of talent we would end up attracting—a once-in-a-generation player who is changing the game for women’s sports,” he said in written remarks. “I will be thrilled to watch as downtown becomes more activated and sees even more foot traffic this summer with demand for Indiana Fever games already on the rise.”

Fever road games could be a tough ticket, as well.

Teams like New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks and Chicago Sky are already selling tickets for games against the Fever. Based on an IBJ analysis of Ticketmaster listings, the lowest get-in price for any of those contests is a May 24 game in Los Angeles at $144. The highest-price ticket is a courtside seat for the same game, which is going for $2,302; the next is for a Chicago Sky game on June 23, with courtside tickets going for $1,700 and most other seats in the arena ranging from $300 to $400.

In the 48 hours after Clark’s Feb. 29 announcement, nearly 1,200 tickets were sold for the Connecticut Sun’s May 14 season opener against the Fever.

“She’s going to drive ticket sales on the road, and she’s going to drive ticket sales in Indianapolis,” ESPN’s Lobo said, “so I’m sure the Fever’s marketing department is going to be all over that.”

Johnny Beiswanger

Lifelong Fever fan Johnny Beiswanger has had season tickets for years. He also moderates one of the franchise’s largest Facebook fan groups, which has 3,700 members.

Beiswanger said the excitement surrounding Clark’s joining the Fever is palpable, but some fans are concerned about rising ticket prices. He expects away-game tickets to be difficult to come by, in part because the league has only 12 teams (the NBA has 30), making for only 20 regular-season opportunities to see Clark on the road this season.

And secondary-market tickets are often exorbitantly priced for big events, he added. “People are going to jack that price up until someone buys it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tries to sell their tickets for $400 to see if someone bites on it,” he said. “I’ve already seen some people … selling their tickets for when the Fever come to town at an outrageous price.”

Not a savior

On the court, Lobo said, Clark is likely to inject life into a team that has struggled to find its footing in recent years, despite having solid players like Kelsey Mitchell and Aliyah Boston, who was the Fever’s No. 1 pick in 2023 and subsequent Rookie of the Year.

She said Clark, aside from being a strong threat on the outside, including her infamous long-distance shots, is a playmaker who makes those around her better. Lobo said Clark will mesh well with Boston, Mitchell and NaLyssa Smith, who were key players in the 2023 season.

“Caitlin Clark is one of those players where it doesn’t matter who else you have on the team in terms of fit—you’re taking Caitlin Clark if you have the No. 1 pick,” she said. “It just so happens that Indiana also has incredible pieces to complement her. There are players in Indiana who can play in a way where Caitlin is really going to help them showcase the best of their talents while also showcasing the best of her talents.”

Tamika Catchings

Tamika Catchings, a Hall of Fame player who spent her career with the Fever and then served as a team executive, said Clark will fit well into the Fever’s offensive and defensive systems—but she doesn’t view her as the franchise savior.

“I think it’s going be important as an organization for the Fever to try and relieve some of the pressure on Clark, and how they do that is [by] building a solid group alongside her,” Catchings said. “She doesn’t have to come in and save Indiana.

“We have good players that are here already. But she has to come in and do what she does really well, which is score the basketball and get her teammates open and draw attention.”

Catchings said the WNBA has had superstars before, but many were part of the league—or at least introduced to professional ranks—before the social media era put players under a microscope.

The league and the Fever should provide Clark with “the support that she needs to come in and hopefully have a really, really successful career,” Catchings said.

Beiswanger said fans expect this year’s team to make the playoffs. The Fever were two spots shy of the feat last year (eight of the league’s 12 teams qualify). They have not been to the playoffs since 2016 and have not won a WNBA Championship since 2012, when Catchings and Katie Douglas played. They had a WNBA Finals appearance in 2015.

Caitlin Clark would join Fever forward Aliyah Boston, the team’s No. 1 pick in 2023 and last year’s WNBA Rookie of the Year. (IBJ photo/Mickey Shuey)

‘The right moment’

Many who have followed Clark’s career believe the WNBA Draft will be the start of something special for the Fever and the league.

Beth Goetz, the University of Iowa’s athletic director, said Clark’s decision to turn professional comes at “the right moment” for women’s basketball.

“To have somebody with that broad national reach be a part of the league, I think you’re going to see [payoff] immediately,” said Goetz, who was athletic director at Ball State University before going to Iowa in 2022.

She noted that “any transition to professional sport certainly takes some time.” But the combination of Clark’s name recognition, brand relationships and ability to impact her teams is pivotal, Goetz said. “You have the player, the athlete, the person that has the opportunity to grow the game and provide—maybe—that spark that’s really going to allow this [momentum] to continue for the WNBA.”

Lobo said Clark will be “a driving force” in pushing the league’s television ratings higher, even coming off a year in which the league’s championship series had its highest average viewership in 20 years.

The Iowa-Ohio State game on March 3 averaged 3.39 million viewers, making it the most-watched women’s college basketball game in more than a decade.

By comparison, the WNBA’s most watched regular-season cable broadcast in 24 years happened on opening night of the 2023 season with the return of Brittney Griner, who had been detained in Russia for nearly 10 months. That game had an average of 683,000 viewers and peaked at 1 million.

Lobo said if Clark can push viewership figures higher, that might help set the WNBA up for a stronger TV deal when its current one expires at the end of the 2025 season. In turn, it could also mean higher salaries and more opportunities for WNBA players.

“I don’t think it’s ridiculous to think that she is going to be the one driving all of that, because we’ve never seen a person in the women’s college game as popular as her, who drives ticket sales, who drives ratings,” Lobo said. “We’ve seen teams drive ticket sales, but not a person. And I think [Clark’s impact] will continue with the WNBA and will be such an incredible boon for the league when the new TV deal comes up.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

3 thoughts on “Caitlin Clark expected to push Fever, WNBA to new heights

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In