Caitlin Clark’s New Reality

In early April, during the N.C.A.A. Final Four, ESPN’s “SportsCenter” host Scott Van Pelt asked Diana Taurasi, the legendary guard for the Phoenix Mercury, what was in store for this year’s highly anticipated rookie class when it reached the W.N.B.A. “Reality is coming,” Taurasi said. “You look superhuman playing against eighteen-year-olds, but you’re going to come play with some grown women that have been playing professional basketball for a long time.” Greatness would translate, she added, but there would be a “transition period.” Rookies might have to give themselves “some grace.”

Taurasi’s remarks were quickly clipped and circulated widely. They did not go over well. Many, perhaps most, people interpreted “reality is coming” as a swipe aimed at Caitlin Clark, who would soon be taken with the top pick in the draft, and who was fast becoming one of the most famous athletes in the country. Why, they wondered, didn’t Taurasi appreciate Clark’s prowess and all the new attention—and money—that she was bringing in? A few weeks later, Taurasi was asked about her comments, and given an opportunity to walk them back. She gave a half-rueful smile. “The new fans are really sensitive these days,” she said. “You can’t say anything.” Every level is an adjustment, she explained. “I don’t think I said anything that wasn’t factually correct.”

Taurasi, the daughter of Argentinean immigrants, was the top pick twenty years ago. She had won three national championships with the University of Connecticut and had twice been chosen as the national player of the year. In her first season in the W.N.B.A., she averaged seventeen points and was named the Rookie of the Year. She has won three W.N.B.A. championships, five Olympic gold medals, and five scoring titles, and has been selected for the All-W.N.B.A. first team ten times, making the second team another four times. She has scored nearly three thousand more points than any other player in W.N.B.A. history, and is widely regarded as the best player that the league has ever seen.

It isn’t just Taurasi’s smoothness on the court, or her strength, or her shooting ability, that has made this possible. She is also tough and brash—even a little mean. She’s usually among the league leaders in technical fouls. Kobe Bryant used to call her the White Mamba, and she has a charisma and an intensity like his, though only a fraction of his celebrity. After losing the 2021 Finals, she reportedly broke a door in the visiting team’s locker room. In a particularly heated moment with a rival star, Taurasi gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Take that with you, baby,” she whispered. (The referee tossed both players from the game.) When Kelsey Plum was a rookie, not long after breaking the N.C.A.A. scoring record, she found herself guarding Taurasi, and thought she’d show Taurasi what she could do. Instead, Taurasi got her in the gut and sent her sprawling. Plum lay on the floor, half in pain, half laughing, having just been hit by reality.

Taurasi was a rookie during the W.N.B.A.’s eighth season. Three of the league’s sixteen teams had recently folded; it was a period of flux and contraction. Viewership was dropping. As the first over-all pick, Taurasi made slightly more than forty thousand dollars a year. Soon after she was drafted, she was put at the center of an ad campaign designed around players’ femininity. “They had me put my hair down, lipstick, I had a fucking halter top on,” Taurasi told ESPN for a documentary on the history of basketball. “I never felt so bad in my life.”

The league struggled to market Taurasi, who is gay, just as they struggled to market many of the league’s Black stars. “I don’t know if there’s a bigger marketing ball that’s been dropped than us not talking about Diana Taurasi nonstop,” the former player and longtime ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo told Sports Illustrated, in 2021. “Her name should have been like Serena Williams.” Instead, Taurasi made her money in Russia, where her salary was reportedly around one and a half million U.S. dollars. In 2015, she made headlines for accepting a bonus from her Russian team—rumored to be more than two hundred thousand dollars—not to play in the W.N.B.A. that year. Her salary from the Phoenix Mercury, where she had just won a championship and been named the Finals M.V.P., was around a hundred thousand dollars.

But things were starting to change in and around the league. The level of play kept rising. Players took marketing matters into their own hands, building followings on social media and posting their pregame fits on TikTok. They built a brand for the W.N.B.A., with a clear and consistent orientation to social justice. They projected a kind of unapologetic authenticity. In the early days of the pandemic, Taurasi was joined by another W.N.B.A. veteran, Sue Bird, and Bird’s partner, the soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe, for a four-hour wine-powered Instagram Live session, during which they laughed and talked a lot of shit. It was a hit. (In 2022, ESPN created the “Bird & Taurasi Show,” an alternative telecast for the Final Four, as a gussied-up version of that pandemic live stream. Eventually, they upgraded the red Solo cups to Yetis.)

When league play resumed in the summer of 2020, television viewership increased, and then it kept rising. New money came into the league, some of it from men who owned men’s teams. A collective-bargaining agreement negotiated that year allowed for a top-line salary around half a million dollars for star veterans; the new top rookie salary was nearly double what it had been when Taurasi joined the league. The teams still flew economy when they travelled to games; they still played in small arenas. But last year, one team, the Seattle Storm, was valued at a hundred and fifty-one million dollars, a roughly five-thousand-per-cent increase over some of the reported values of W.N.B.A. teams just a few years before. Nike ran an ad campaign with the slogan “The only problem with the WNBA is you’re not watching it.” No one thought to wonder about the problems the league might have if everyone did.

Then Clark arrived, last month, bringing her logo threes, pinpoint assists, and her swagger—along with millions of eyeballs, many of them belonging to the kind of casual fans who don’t watch a lot of sports save for the Super Bowl. Nearly two and a half million people watched Clark get drafted, shattering the league’s previous draft-night record of six hundred thousand—which was set the year that Taurasi was picked first.

The attention represented an unprecedented opportunity for the league—the prospect, finally, of real money, the sort of resources you find in big-time pro sports. Just before the season, the W.N.B.A. announced a new plan to provide charter flights to away games. The commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, has said that the league is looking to “at least double” the sixty million dollars it brings in from its current media-rights deal. Clark is not the only reason for new interest in the league—“It’s because of me, too,” the rookie Angel Reese told reporters, not entirely inaccurately—but she is by far the biggest. When Clark’s team, the Indiana Fever, are on the road, some opposing teams have moved the games into bigger arenas, to capitalize on increased demand; others, including Taurasi’s Mercury, have expanded capacity. Tickets to an upcoming Fever-Mercury game, on June 30th, a Sunday, cost roughly five to ten times more than tickets to see the Mercury play the Sparks earlier that same weekend. Ticket sales across the league are up more than ninety per cent.

Some of the W.N.B.A.’s new fans seem to have assumed that Clark would dominate the pros instantly, just as she dominated the college game. Logo threes on demand from the jump, and so on. What they’ve seen so far is something else. Clark has played well—for a rookie. Through her first eleven games, she has far more assists than Taurasi did at this point, for instance, but she has scored less. She leads the league in turnovers. The Fever are one of the worst teams in the league, and they’ve opened their season with a long run of games against some of the best teams. The schedule is taking a toll on Clark, and you can see it when she shoots from deep: her legs look fatigued. There have been glimpses of the transformative player from Iowa—on Friday, Clark scored thirty points and hit seven threes in a tight win over the Washington Mystics—but there have also been nights when she’s stifled by physical defense. Defenders are picking her up near her own baseline, and face-guarding her. When the Fever played the Chicago Sky, at home, earlier this month, she was, infamously, hip-checked to the floor.

Even before that play, Clark’s treatment by opponents was a subject of scrutiny and argument. But the reaction to the shove in Indianapolis gave those debates the quality of farce. The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune—the home team’s local paper—called it an “assault.” A congressman from Indiana sent a letter to Engelbert about the “attack.” ESPN’s flagship shouting show, “First Take,” devoted a forty-minute segment to it, without a commercial break; it was covered on CNN, too, and just about every other news outlet. “The players in the WNBA need to realize that Caitlyn Clark is helping all of them, now and in the long run,” the tennis legend Martina Navratilova tweeted. “Caitlyn is the tide that will raise all boats!”

Navratilova was right, in one respect; the so-called Clark Effect is going to make every player richer. But, in being right, she revealed what was wrong. The vast majority of endorsement opportunities for W.N.B.A. players during the past decade have been for a handful of white stars, even though most of the league’s stars are Black. The vocal activism of the players has been a critical part of the league’s identity, and, until now, to the fan base’s sense of community. But, for some of the new fans, Clark—a white woman from a red state—represents something else. Other rookies, including Reese, have been subjected to viciously hard fouls, but that hasn’t elicited the same outrage; when it happens to Clark, a racially tinged envy is presumed, by some, to be the cause. Clark signed a twenty-eight-million-dollar deal with Nike before she ever won a game. You can say that she earned every dollar, given how good she was in college, and how many people want to see her play. (In fact, given her name recognition, that figure seems a little low.) But it’s easy to imagine why not every player would want to line up to thank her, or why they might be exhausted by the idea that one reckless foul—from a player, incidentally, who has a history of them—represents all of their reactions. The arguments surrounding Clark are entangled with the fraught histories of race and gender in this country, histories that touch everyone. And everyone, it seems, feels that they have a stake in the situation. But, for some of the players, perhaps it’s a little more straightforward.

Clark might soon become the best player in the league. But that title currently belongs to A’ja Wilson, a two-time M.V.P., who is averaging twenty-eight points and more than twelve rebounds per game this season, and has led the Las Vegas Aces to two straight titles. Or perhaps Breanna Stewart, the reigning M.V.P., whose New York Liberty has already trounced the Fever twice. Or Napheesa Collier, the Minnesota Lynx star, or the entire Connecticut Sun team. There are only a hundred and forty-four spots in the W.N.B.A., compared with more than four hundred in the N.B.A.; lottery draft picks sometimes do not make the cut. The players are physical, and they sometimes get personal. They play in one of the most competitive sports leagues in the world. They all have something to prove.

On Saturday, multiple outlets reported that U.S.A. Basketball had left Clark off the Olympic team, leading to a new round of outrage. Taurasi, meanwhile, made the team—her sixth time being selected for it. She turns forty-two on Tuesday, and is averaging just under seventeen points a game this season—the same as Clark. Even now, after all these years, she is as pure a competitor as there has ever been, in any sport. The funny thing is, Clark seems a lot like Taurasi: cold-blooded, cutthroat, cocky. If Clark is going to become the greatest player ever, she’s going to have to wrestle the title from Taurasi. Taurasi’s never going to give it to her. What makes me think that Clark has a chance is that she clearly wouldn’t want her to. ♦

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