After thanking Caitlin Clark following a victory over her in the national championship game earlier this month, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley made the case that Clark deserves first and foremost credit for exploding interest in the sport.

In an interview on Bernstein & Holmes on 670 The Score in Chicago on Wednesday, Staley argued that while there are plenty of great teams and players in the sport, Clark was a rising tide for everyone.

“I want women’s basketball to grow, and I’m not too shy about saying why it grows,” Staley said. “She’s made it grow over the past two years.”

Why does Staley believe this? Well, she saw Breanna Stewart win four straight national championships at UConn a decade ago. She saw Paige Bueckers, with that same Husky program, win National Player of the Year as a freshman in 2021. Neither of them raised the profile of women’s college basketball like Clark did.

“We need to make sure that we’re telling the stories of our entire game, so sometimes you have to cut down against the masses to say what’s happening in real time,” Staley said. “Caitlin Clark is the sole reason why viewership has shot through the roof for our game.”

This year’s NCAA tournament averaged 1.1 million viewers per game, up 121 percent from last year, including a 76 percent boost for non-Iowa games. The championship game brought in an average of nearly 19 million viewers.

This week’s WNBA Draft carried the momentum forward, with nearly 2.5 million viewers, the most ever for any WNBA event.

Some have pushed against the narrative that Clark generated the hype around the sport. Many held up past icons like Cheryl Miller and Diana Taurasi to remind fans of the sport’s history.

Staley lived most of that history, and believes Clark is a unique phenomenon. The Gamecocks coach thanked Clark publicly from the championship podium after the title game in Cleveland, and continues to credit the sharpshooting guard for moving the sport forward.

At the same time, she believes the attention Clark brought to the sport won’t leave with her.

“Other games are being played besides Caitlin Clark,” Staley added. “If you play Caitlin Clark, you’re going to run up against somebody you think is pretty good.”

Staley appreciates the spotlight that playing against Clark and Iowa in two straight Final Fours brought to her program.

“They tuned in to see Caitlin Clark … but they got Caitlin Clark and they got South Carolina,” Staley said.

The evolution of WNBA popularity and how women’s college basketball moves forward will be fascinating over the rest of 2024, but it’s clear the sport caught lightning in a bottle with Clark’s intoxicating style and poise.

[670 The Score on X]

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.