Caitlin Clark Sophia Smith Photos via USA TODAY. Edit by Liam McGuire, Comeback Media.

Cut through the hyperbole and grandeur of the women’s basketball talk you’ve heard on ESPN, Fox or your local sports talk station the past month and one thing is clear: people are paying attention to the game.

After tens of millions of Americans watched Caitlin Clark, JuJu Watkins, Kamilla Cardoso and more compete throughout the NCAA women’s tournament this spring, mainstream sports media snapped into action. Talking heads treated these games like events. There were multiple segments a day from people like Pat McAfee and Colin Cowherd, instant reactions from podcasters and YouTubers, and even a little controversy on an ESPN alt-broadcast. Women’s basketball became part of our sports news cycle.

Inevitably, longtime fans of the sport rubbed up against that. For as much effort and emotion was put into pushing for mainstream awareness of the sport by its fans, this particular form of equality smelled funny. For one, it required hyperspeed homework (or elite faking) by male hosts who didn’t quite have their hot take flamethrowers ready on a sport they previously ignored. Plus, it meant dragging Clark & Co. through the ringer of a sports content culture we largely agree can be toxic and damaging at its worst, reductive at its best.

Perhaps there is no way around this at the highest levels of national analysis. Good luck getting Stephen A. Smith to not turn a sports story into a ranking or an argument. That urge says more about him or his counterparts and what works on TV than the sport or athlete in his crosshairs on any particular day.

Looking out, this explosive women’s college basketball season begs a different question. If the Jamie Horowitz-ization of women’s hoops is a necessary evil on the tube, what should the rest look like? Who should it be aimed at?

When I spoke with Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve for a story in 2021 on women’s sports media, she put forth a metric that is rarely considered by network suits or ratings watchers. As we think about who are potential fans of women’s sports, Reeve suggested, the goal should not be conversion but discovery. Certainly men tuned in to watch Iowa vs. LSU, UConn or South Carolina last week, but there is an invisible class of potential fans who have never been activated out there.

According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative, 35 percent of American girls aged 6-17 play sports, up from 33 percent in 2019. Not to mention their parents or family members, brought into the sport through a personal connection. Many minority communities around the country identify with women athletes in a way they don’t with Tom Brady or Mike Trout. There is a world of potential sports fans — TV viewers, ticket buyers, merchandise shoppers and more — who become targets for sports brands and networks when the scope widens.

Around the country, we see successes activating them. Women’s sports bars, most notably the Sports Bra in Portland, have captured the minds of sports marketers and local business owners alike around the country. Bleacher Report’s women’s sports community highlightHER launched in 2019 and now has 270,000 Instagram followers and nearly another 200,000 on TikTok and YouTube combined. Playa Society, a women’s sports streetwear brand, sells out collections like they’re Stanley tumblers at Target and hosts popular pop-ups around major events. Digital outlets like Just Women’s Sports and Togethxr launched before this women’s basketball wave and have stabilized into successful content houses. In 2021, Bally’s and the Phoenix Mercury struck a $66 million deal that was hailed as the largest official team sponsorship in American history. Clark sold out a football stadium this year; so did Nebraska volleyball.

Maybe all the people who swarmed to be part of those communities were converted men’s sports lovers looking for something new. More likely, the opportunity to show up and convene around something more relatable spoke to new kinds of sports fans.

Those fans are also incredibly loyal. Remember, the longtimers worked hard to keep up all these years. They show up. During the WNBA Bubble in 2020, I interviewed Niky Scott, an account manager at audience research firm Zoomph, who told me WNBA athletes were among the more valuable ambassadors online. Fans were more likely to engage with political, social and branded content from these athletes than most. Take the league’s orange logo hoodie, popularized on a global scale by Kobe Bryant before his passing. The WNBA used tunnel cams and social media to soak social feeds with images of the hoodie during the 2020 men’s and women’s Bubble seasons in Florida.

“We [wanted] to be relevant and edgy and really cool and desirable visually, and we know that when people are willing to wear your brand and proudly support your brand, that we’d have reached a new level,” then-WNBA COO Christy Hedgpeth told me of the campaign.

Women’s sports are getting there.

So no, debating whether South Carolina is a dynasty or Clark is the best college player ever are not likely to drum up newfound dedication to women’s basketball among the average sports fan. They will go wherever the wind takes them. Elsewhere, millions await a sports culture and a media ecosystem for them.

Some major networks are already trying to find them. NBC Sports’ women’s brand On Her Turf (which has suffered cuts recently) boasts hundreds of millions of followers. CBS just expanded We Need To Talk, a sports talk show with a cast made up entirely of women, and along with ESPN recently added to its women’s basketball and women’s soccer reporting teams. Ion’s Friday night broadcasts of WNBA games increased the league’s “total female audience” by 29 percent, according to league data. It can be hard to encourage experimentation without guaranteed results in today’s media business, but passionate fans are out there.

Fortunately, the games have pulled them in. Tens of millions found their way to Fox, NBC, ESPN and even Peacock this college basketball season. They are looking for more.

An easy win could be studio and game programming. While NWSL and women’s college basketball game broadcasts are surrounded by studio shows and feature unique commentary teams at each national partner, the WNBA does not. Most “national” WNBA games are merely simulcasts of local broadcasts. We already know games are the first pull for women’s sports fans. Why not dress up those games to the nines to maximize the bang for each buck?

When I interviewed ESPN basketball analyst and WNBA head coach Stephanie White during the tournament, she told me she had only missed two women’s Final Fours since she was 10. Her aunt took her around the country each spring to watch the best athletes in the sport face off. White was inspired to pick up the sport, eventually winning a national championship at Purdue as a player before graduating into coaching and broadcasting.

White’s family made it happen, and she fell in love. There are tons out there who have been called to attention by the incredible tournament we just saw. They don’t fall into the demos that might be pre-saved in the programs run by data analysts at our biggest sports networks, but they are consumers now if they weren’t before.

This is uncharted territory for sports executives used to gearing programming and content, first and foremost, toward dudes who love football. The women’s sports space is wide open to own. The outlets that own it will be creative and not afraid to gear their work toward audiences they haven’t met yet and who may not even know what they want.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.