It’s a good time to be a NCAA women’s basketball fan in Southwest Florida.
This Thanksgiving weekend, Fort Myers will be the epicenter of the game with four of the nation’s best teams and one of its biggest superstars competing in a pair of holiday tournaments.
The fields for the Fort Myers Tip-Off at Suncoast Arena and the Gulf Coast Showcase at Hertz Arena feature some of the sport’s biggest powers in Tennessee, Indiana, North Carolina and Iowa. As for the superstar, that’s Caitlin Clark, the reigning National Player of the Year, who became a swaggering sensation as she led the Hawkeyes to the NCAA championship game last March.
There’s even a local rooting interest with FGCU competing in the Showcase. The Eagles could face Clark and Iowa in a second-round matchup Saturday, provided both win their tournament openers.
The events are expecting record crowds, something that speaks not just to the strength of the competition but also to the growing popularity of NCAA women’s basketball. Last year’s title game between Iowa and LSU averaged 9.9 million viewers, more than double the previous viewership record for a championship game. It matched or exceeded every game of last year’s NBA playoffs except for the NBA Finals and beat every game of the 2023 World Series between Texas and Arizona, which averaged 9.11 million viewers.
“Our event’s been great; it’s grown organically over the years,” said Glenn Pfister, who’s been the Gulf Coast Showcase’s executive director since its inception in 2013. “But these last couple of years, you’ve just seen women’s basketball explode. The players have always been good but some of them today are just superstars. People are paying attention. You see NBA players like LeBron James pushing the women’s game and now they have a much larger platform than they used to.”
The Caitlin Clark experience
No women’s player arguably has a bigger brand than Clark, who entered the national consciousness during Iowa’s memorable run last March. She set NCAA Tournament records for points, assists and 3-pointers and became the first player in tournament history with back-to-back 40-point games. Clark was the first Division I player to go over 1,000 points and 300 assists in the same season and enters this year needing 811 points to become the all-time leading scorer in Division I history.
She showed that will just be a matter of time out of the gate this season as she dropped 44 points in Iowa’s 80-76 win over Virginia Tech in a clash of Top 10 ranked teams on Nov. 9.
Production aside, Clark’s style of play, featuring 3-point shots from near midcourt and a ‘You can’t see me’ celebration borrowed from WWE Superstar John Cena, is what drew the most attention. The Iowa women’s team nearly doubled its season-ticket sales to a record 13,000 this year, 5,000 more than the men.
“I feel like I was just a freshman and I was playing in front of no one. It was just our families that were sitting over there,” Clark said in a recent interview with The Associated Press in an otherwise empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “Now I play in front of a sold-out arena, everybody screaming at me after games begging for my autograph.”
Clark’s name, image, and likeness valuation is estimated at more than $750,000 this year, according to On3.com. She has NIL deals with State Farm, Nike, Buick, Bose, H&R Block and regional grocery giant Hy-Vee.
FGCU women’s basketball coach Karl Smesko typically prefers to give his players the experience of participating in destination tournaments. However, the potential opportunity to compete against high-level programs like Iowa, North Carolina and Kansas State a couple of miles from the Eagles’ campus was too enticing to pass up.
“We definitely excited to be a part of it,” he said. “If we can win in the first round and get a chance to play Iowa, that game could have 7,000, 8,000 fans. It prepares our players for conference tournament championships, for NCAA Tournament games where you might have to beat somebody on their floor and they have that kind of crowd there. It has the potential to be a really good experience for us.”
Showcasing women’s basketball
Showcase director Pfister watched Clark’s ascension last March with intense interest, having secured Iowa’s entry into the 2023 tournament a few months prior.
“She’s a once-in-a-generation talent and what she’s done for that program is unbelievable,” he said. “Knowing that we had them on the books to come here was pretty exciting. This is probably going to be the biggest event we’ve had to date so far and that’s because of Iowa and the following that Caitlin Clark has.”
Eleven years ago when the Showcase debuted in Fort Myers, there weren’t many Thanksgiving holiday tournaments for women’s teams.
“We thought, ‘What can we do to help grow the women’s game,’” Pfister said.
Showcase officials utilized an existing relationship with ESPN college basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli to help convince some of the sport’s most successful teams to commit. In just its second year, the Showcase attracted defending national champion UConn, which went on to win its third of four straight titles and has subsequently drawn fellow champs Stanford, Baylor, South Carolina, and Notre Dame to Southwest Florida.
“If you look at our past fields, we’ve had pretty much every high-caliber women’s college basketball team in the country come down here,” Pfister said.
Getting Iowa and Clark should only help strengthen the Showcase’s future fields.
“There’s a definite buzz,” Pfister said. “Teams that are looking at future years are calling us.”
Fort Myers in national spotlight
While the Showcase has the Caitlin Clark show, the upstart Fort Myers Tip-Off will counter with a pair of top 10 teams in Tennessee and Indiana meeting in a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving night.
The Tip-Off started in 2018 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State College as a men’s-only tournament. Event director Mark Starsiak said the plan was always to add a women’s field and that began in 2022.
“We always thought the area and the infrastructure at FSW and just the fans in Southwest Florida would support it,” he said. “It’s been really nice to have that go along with how the game has surged on a national level.”
Last year, the Tip-Off’s first women’s field had four teams and featured a matchup between Maryland and DePaul that aired live on FS2 the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. This year, it expanded to eight teams with the showdown between the Lady Vols and the Hoosiers set for 6 p.m. Thanksgiving night on FOX.
“Our goal in creating the women’s side was to do it in a really big and right way,” Starsiak said. “Big-time TV was always the goal. We’ve been really fortunate to have FOX as our broadcast partner. Finding the right game to put on FOX network TV was a big step forward and they had faith in us that we could deliver.
“Indiana and Tennessee, that matchup is one of the best in the early season for the women’s game. Indiana’s coming off a really good season and they’re a national brand. And then the Lady Vols, the brand recognition of that name, and that team is so strong. It’s got everyone really excited.”
That excitement is likely to persist in the coming years as both the Showcase and the Tip-Off appear committed to ensuring big-time women’s college basketball continues to be a Thanksgiving tradition in Southwest Florida.
– The Associated Press contributed to this story