The Color That Matters Most Is Gold

NOTE:  This musing also appears today on our sister site, www.leblanguage.net.  Please visit it regularly for extended coverage of media, sports, politics and life. 

This is the third time this year across our two sites that I’ve been motivated to offer a musing involving Caitlin Clark and women’s basketball.  That alone should reinforce the fact that she’s clearly in the eyeteeth of zeitgeist malestrom, as if appearing on Weekend Update hadn’t already confirmed it.

She has once again become the focus of controversy in the wake of the news that broke late last week, ahead of any official news, that she was not going to be a part of the USA Women’s Basketball Team that will look to defend the title they won in 2021 at Tokyo 2020 (yep, it was indeed weird times back then) in front of primarily cardboard cutouts and the smallest U.S. Olympic TV audience ever.

A great deal of the noisier hue and cry about that have come from women’s sports media personalities who have rejoiced in the relevance and record ratings that Clark has brought to both to March Madness, where her run to the title game even eclipsed the ratings of her male counterparts’, and the first third of the WNBA season, where almost every one of the 13 games she has appeared in has produced dramatic increases in benchmark ratings, both national and local.  Naturally, it was FOX NEWS that amplified one of the more notable ones, courtesy of my one-time colleague Amy Nelson:

WNBA star Caitlin Clark was snubbed from the Team USA Olympic basketball roster for the summer 2024 games in Paris. While Clark took the decision as motivation, one critic argued Team USA missed a “golden opportunity.”

“They whiffed here,” Michele Tafoya told “Fox & Friends” Monday. Tafoya, a longtime NFL sideline reporter and former Olympic broadcaster, argued Clark’s “undeniable” popularity paired with her talent should have earned her a spot on the roster.   “People are discovering women’s basketball for the first time – for many, many people because of Caitlin Clark. She would have been a boon for this Olympic team,” Tafoya told co-host Brian Kilmeade. “This would have meant so much for the ratings of the women’s Olympic basketball stuff. All of it.”

I have immense respect for Tafoya, yet another one-time colleague who went on to become a trailblazer for women’s sports broadcasters, rising to superstar status as part of the Al Michaels team on NBC SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL.  But I honestly wonder how many of Clark’s games she’s been watching this year, or how much she knows about the WNBA as a whole, when she doubled down on her opinion with this kind of comeback that Nelson also reported on:

“Are you saying her performance the other night with 30 points and seven threes to tie a rookie record does not show that she’s a promising pro?” Tafoya shot back, referencing Clark’s performance against the Washington Mystics Saturday.  

Yes, that was a great statistical showing for Clark, who continues to rank among the league’s top scorers and rebounders and is so far arguably the best in a strong rookie class.  But that performance was against an opponent who has lost all 12 of their games, a record that recalls the Washington Generals’ of Harlem Globetrotters infamy.

Last night, on a very light baseball night and a later-starting Stanley Cup final, I had the opportunity to watch Clark compete for the third time this year against the WNBA’s top team, the Connecticut Sun.  USA TODAY’s Ellen J. Horrow reported on how that went down, just in case folks like Tafoya were otherwise busy:

Once again, the Connecticut Sun shined too brightly for Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever.

The Sun throttled the Fever 89-72 Monday night in Uncasville, Connecticut, in a game that was reminiscent of the teams’ first meeting in the WNBA season opener on May 14. The Sun won that game 92-71 despite 20 points from Clark, but the third meeting between the teams went no better for the Fever and was decidedly worse for the league’s No. 1 overall pick.

Just three days after Clark tied her season high in scoring (30 points) and set a new season high for 3-pointers made (7) in a win over the Mystics, she scored just 10 points on 3-for-8 shooting against the Sun in a game in which she was limited because of foul trouble and was largely over at halftime. Clark also had just two assists Monday night and did not record a rebound for the first time since that season opener against Connecticut.

I’ll be honest, even though I’m among the handful (peace sign?) among us who subscribe to the modestly priced WNBA League Pass, I had no idea who anyone on the Sun were until last night.  I was as impressed as was Horrow with two in particular:

Sun forward Alyssa Thomas, who is expected to be announced as a member of the 2024 U.S. Olympic team, had just seven points but pulled down 18 rebounds, while DiJonai Carrington scored a career-high 22 points for Connecticut, which improved to 3-0 against Indiana in 2024 and a league-best 10-1 this season.

But Carrington’s accomplishments last night were apparently overshadowed enough by yet another perceived slighting of Clark which SPORTS ILLUSTATED.COM’s Karl Rasmussen felt obliged to amplify:

Clark was awarded a foul during Monday’s tilt between the Indiana Fever and Connecticut Sun after officials deemed that DiJonai Carrington reached in while trying to steal the ball.

Carrington clearly did not agree with the assessment from the referees, and she made clear that she felt Clark had flopped on the play. After hearing the whistle sound and the official call her number for a foul, Carrington comically mimed Clark’s flopping antics.

Carrington appeared to bump Clark while she tried to drive to the basket, which is what prompted the whistle from the referee. That didn’t sit well with Carrington, who indicated to the official that Clark had sold the contact with a flop.

And this revived the ongoing discussion, such as it is, that a league that is more than 60 per cent black and reportedly 38 per cent gay is both jealous and angry that disproportionate attention is being paid to a straight, white rookie on a 3-10 team.  Several social media posts pointed out the degree of representation that the committee that is determining the Olympic team’s makeup have on those qualifiers.

Yet that committee also represents dozens of years of experience with women’s basketball as a whole on a global scale.   Their goal is to produce the most competitive team that can best represent the United States of America against the world’s best players.  And if this how Clark is performing against just the WNBA’s best, what could we expect from her in an even more challenging environment?

Fortunately, there are voices of reasons that are beginning to be noticed, including MSNBC.com’s Jackie Powell, who offered up these thoughts yesterday:

After The Athletic leaked what is believed to be USA Women’s basketball roster for the Olympics in Paris, many fans of Indiana Fever shooting guard Caitlin Clark were quick to call her exclusion a “snub.” Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, wrote on X, “Having covered the Olympics for 40 years (gulp), I’ve seen some bad team and athlete selection decisions. This is the worst. Makes absolutely no sense for a women’s sport that would have been catapulted onto the world stage in the greatest way possible with Clark.”

But Clark wasn’t snubbed. She just didn’t make it onto a roster put together by current women’s basketball executives, retired WNBA champions and former Olympians who, in trying to secure Team USA’s 8th consecutive gold medal, prioritized experience on the professional international stage over notoriety and cultural clout.

And THE ATHLETIC’s esteemed media reporter Richard Deitsch offered up this informed encapsulation of the actual track record of Olympics ratings history:

One common opinion is how having Clark in Paris would improve viewership and grow women’s basketball. The argument is that she should be there for marketing. Looking at previous women’s basketball viewership at the Olympics, though, you might be surprised how many people have watched before Clark’s arrival on the scene.

Here are the average viewership numbers for the last four women’s basketball gold-medal games:

2021 (Tokyo): 7.9 million viewers (which includes out-of-home measurement, a change Nielsen made in 2020);
2016 (Rio): 8.1 million viewers;
2012 (London): 10.2 million viewers;
2008 (Beijing): 5.9 million viewers.

The women’s gold-medal game between Team USA and Japan in Tokyo in 2021 tipped off at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC, amid COVID, and still drew nearly 8 million viewers. The U.S. win over Spain in 2016 tipped at 2:30 p.m. ET on a Saturday. (The gold-medal game from Paris will tip off at 9:30 a.m. ET on Aug. 11. That’s not ideal, but I bet the viewership number is still strong if the U.S. team makes it.)

And Deitsch even added the thoughts of the woman who perhaps might be most impacted by the presence–or lack thereof–of Clark in Paris this summer:

Molly Solomon, NBC’s executive producer and president of their Olympics production, offered some welcome nuance about the prospect of having Clark on her airwaves this summer in Paris.

“Her impact on viewership would be undeniable and maybe even historic,” Solomon told The Athletic six weeks ago, “but I do think it speaks so much to the depth of the WNBA that it’s a question whether she’s going to make the roster. I think it’d be amazing if she could. But I really feel like (NBC has) been lifting up women’s Olympic basketball for a long time. We’ve always put the game on really high-profile platforms, and we’re going to do the same thing here.

When people ask me about what are the most fascinating storylines for these Games, the women’s team is going for its eighth straight gold medal,” Solomon continued. “That’s unprecedented in any Olympic sport. They haven’t lost a game since 1992. It’s amazing, that streak. So adding Caitlin to that team would create even more intrigue, just getting more people to realize the greatness of this team.”

That’s my point on viewership. The U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team is already in a class of its own — 54-0 since 1996 in Olympic play — and the interest has been there for multiple cycles. The notion that few watched before Clark is absurd and inaccurate.

And if indeed those that are newly discovering the WNBA are even paying the slightest of attention to the other nine players on the court whenever Clark is out there, they should at least be recognizing the talent and the faces of people like Alyssa Thomas.  And I know I now know how important DiJonai Carrington is to her league-leading team–and not just because she’s an effective taunter.

I’d contend that if there are concerns about who shows up to watch, the presence of the league’s established stars will assure a stronger ethnic representation for these games than most other Olympic sports will offer.  Anyone who denies the appeal of having representation on screen to the bottom line probably didn’t pay much attention to the demographics that drove this past weekend’s strong box office of BAD BOYS: RIDE OR DIE.

And I also know that a sizable percentage of even the most dog-whistling segments of the audience that believes Clark is being singled out as a “white bitch” target love the United States of America enough to want to see a dominant performance on the global stage.  And Clark will be among the loudest cheerleaders in that group, as Powell’s piece reminds:

When Clark was asked Sunday about not making this Olympic team, she said it “will be fun” to watch the 12 who did make Team USA compete in Paris. “I’m going to be rooting them on to win gold,” she said.

And for those of you who REALLY love Clark, consider that she’s effectively been working non-stop, with an increasingly large spotlight on her, since October.  Even when her college career ended in early April, she spent the balance of the month schlepping to New York to become the face of the league as the number one draft choice and, yes, trading barbs with Colin Jost and Michael Che.  All while still a student at the University of Iowa.  You don’t think she deserves some sort of a vacation?

Clark sure knows these players better than you.  And if you actually choose not to watch this summer because she’s not wearing red, white and blue, that’s on you, and I’d contend you’re not as essential to growing the league and the sport as are true fans’ knowing the names and skill sets of her colleagues.

The good news is even the most blindly loyal of Clark fans have a few more chances to see her compete against those who will be going to France, as well as other talented players who will hopefully see their own stars grow when the league resumes its season in late August.

And I sure hope, like me, they’ll be watching from a more informed perspective.   WITHOUT color blindness.

Courage…

 

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