Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Caitlin Clark builds on 1999 U.S. soccer team’s moment in lifting women’s sports

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The 1999 USWNT World Cup win was a pivotal time for women’s sports. Caitlin Clark has sparked another monumental moment.

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A year and a half ago, a vast majority of Americans had no idea who she was, an athletic young woman tucked away in a Midwestern university town, known to women’s college basketball fans but otherwise hidden from the gaze of the national media. 

Now Caitlin Clark is the most popular athlete in the nation, the driving force behind the greatest days in the history of women’s sports, America’s girl next door all grown up and the personification of everything the country was hoping Title IX might give us. 

Grandmothers shopping in the produce section know her name. So do boys on the driveway who yell it out after swishing a long jumper. TV ratings that would have been unimaginable several months ago are now the norm; no one scoffed when women’s basketball easily outperformed the men during this year’s NCAA tournaments. It simply made sense, because of her. 

The country’s biggest basketball arenas sell out within hours when she’s coming to town. It happened in college, now it’s happening in the pros. Disney+ has decided to air its first live sporting event ever, her first WNBA regular-season game Tuesday night, Indiana at Connecticut. Her No. 22 jersey flies off the virtual shelves, worn by thousands of girls, and probably thousands of boys as well, all of whom have fathers and grandfathers who never would have put on a woman’s sports jersey, ever, no way, no how.  

It’s truly remarkable, this utter fascination with a female athlete in a team sport. When has something like this ever happened? Have we seen anything like this?

A quarter-century ago, yes. On July 10, 1999, a sun-splashed Saturday in Southern California, 90,185 fans filled the Rose Bowl, many of them dads and moms with their daughters, to watch the U.S. women’s national soccer team defeat China in penalty kicks in the Women’s World Cup final. If you were alive then, you probably remember where you were when Brandi Chastain scored the game-winner, then ripped off her shirt and whipped it over her head. Lucky me, I was in the press box, covering every second of it. 

Like Clark, the stars of that team became household names that summer. They appeared in snappy TV commercials and were adored by the national news media. After their win, Chastain and her teammates appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, People and Sports Illustrated in the same week, the first and only time that has ever happened for any story.

To me, the 22-year-old Clark is the individualized version of that team. It was crystal clear in the summer of 1999, and it’s crystal clear now, that the nation has fallen in love with what it has created due to Title IX, the 1972 law that opened the floodgates for girls and women to play sports.

WNBA keeps Caitlin Clark in national spotlight

But the paths of the ‘99ers and Clark do diverge. Not long after the buzz and TV interviews subsided that summer, the USWNT largely disappeared, only to reappear in September 2000 at the Summer Olympic Games in Australia, where they won the silver medal. There were some friendlies and tournaments, to be sure, and plenty of newspaper stories, Olympic previews and honors, including the Sports Illustrated Sportswomen of the Year cover, but most significantly, there was no professional league, not yet. That wasn’t coming until 2001.

So, by and large, when the ’99ers left the huge national stage of the Women’s World Cup, they were gone for 14 months.

When Clark and her University of Iowa teammates lost to South Carolina in the 2024 NCAA final, Clark went away too – for eight days. (During which time she actually popped up in a guest appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” to rave reviews.) 

On that eighth day, Clark became the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, which received record TV ratings. Unlike the soccer players, she had a league to go to and a season to play, immediately: a league, the WNBA, and a team, the Indiana Fever, eager to promote her and her high-profile rookie classmates and ready to ride the momentum of the massive ratings and fan interest she garners. 

Plus, there’s another league, the NBA, the WNBA’s big brother, which is offering significant and unprecedented assistance, including promoting Clark and the WNBA to its 45.8 million X (formerly Twitter) followers. Never has one of the nation’s top four men’s leagues – the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL – ever offered the kind of support for a women’s sport that the NBA is going to provide this year. 

Red, white and blue vs. black and gold

The grip that Clark has on the nation is made all the more remarkable by another contrast with the 1999 USWNT. The soccer players were, obviously, a national team wearing red, white and blue, representing the United States in a major international competition, with the entire nation cheering them on.

But Clark? She was wearing the black and gold of the Iowa Hawkeyes as she was becoming a household name – Iowa, just one of hundreds of teams in women’s college basketball, not even one of the well-known marquee schools in the women’s game before she arrived. 

That Clark became a national phenomenon while not representing the country in some major way (she has been on U.S. under-16 and under-19 national teams, far from the media spotlight) has to be a first in women’s sports. 

Just about every big name in women’s sports – Olympic stars like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, Allyson Felix, Mikaela Shiffrin, Bonnie Blair and Peggy Fleming, tennis players like Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Serena and Venus Williams and golfers like Nancy Lopez and Michelle Wie, to name a few – either gained or enhanced their reputations at the Olympics or in major international sporting events like a world championship, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. U.S. fans grew interested in them, in large part, because they first were introduced to them as athletes who were representing the country. It’s especially easy to cheer for that. 

What was Clark’s launching pad for becoming the most popular athlete in the nation? Iowa City, Iowa, and now Indianapolis. Not New York. Not LA. Not Chicago. Sports fans’ interest in her and her high-wire act, the logo threes and length-of-the-floor pinpoint passes, grew organically from the heartland to the coasts, not the other way around. 

That makes everything happening to and around Clark all the more impressive. No one forced this on anyone. It wasn’t media-driven. It was the fans, they did it. People want to spend their money to see her. They want to buy her jersey. They want to wait in line for hours to get into the building where she’s playing. 

And in that way, the Caitlin Clark Effect once again bears a significant resemblance to what happened in the United States with the women’s national soccer team in June and July 1999. What transpired that magical summer changed the way Americans felt about female athletes. Women’s sports were the place to be, a ticket coveted by parents of daughters, yes, but also by the guy who vowed to never pay to see a women’s sport, until he did. 

Buoyed by that extraordinary support, the members of that 1999 team, many of them now high-profile sports leaders and media personalities, have not gone a day without speaking about their impact, about the privilege of being role models and about their hopes for the future of girls and women in sports.

They have often talked about their legacy, about what they created, an atmosphere and mindset that allowed the nation to not only accept but celebrate and support girls and women in sports. 

They also dreamed back in that summer of 1999, wondering who would come along after them. Who would she be? Where was she, the next one who would send a lightning bolt through American sports and culture, the one who would fill arenas and speak of the opportunities for female athletes just as they did, who would go out of her way to sign autographs just as they did, the one they imagined in their wildest dreams?

It turns out they just needed to wait until she was born in Iowa, then give it another 22 years.

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