Stephen A. Smith and Monica McNutt on "First Take." Stephen A. Smith and Monica McNutt on “First Take.” (Awful Announcing on X/Twitter.)

If you would have told me three years ago that sports media’s biggest headlines involved women’s basketball stars, I would have been thrilled–after all, 2021 was the year former Oregon center, Sedona Prince, went viral for exposing gender inequities perpetuated by the NCAA’s operation of the March Madness tournament, a trademark that, until 2022, was reserved exclusively for the men’s game, among a laundry list of other offenses that prioritized the men’s tournament to the detriment of the women’s. Since then, the popularity of both women’s college and professional basketball has soared, with the 2022-2024 postseasons garnering record-breaking ratings, women’s basketball stars dominating the NIL market, and this past season’s college championship matchup between Iowa and South Carolina outperforming the men’s. Even better, the momentum has translated well to the WNBA, which is having a historic year amid Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark’s rookie season. 

However, with so much increased coverage, the pendulum has also arguably swung too far in the other direction to the detriment of the game, the athletes, and the longtime fans who knew all along that women’s basketball is both an electric product and a highly lucrative business venture.

When discussing women’s basketball these days, sports media is far too fixated on growing the game instead of providing women’s basketball with the high-quality coverage it needs to thrive–and it’s ruining a watershed moment that longtime women’s basketball fans have predicted and anticipated for decades.

Now that sports media finally sees the business potential of women’s basketball, they’re claiming ownership and cashing in by using Clark to further their own agenda: take up air time to harp on growing the sport of women’s basketball by every means necessary–including handing Clark a roster spot on Team USA after being left off the roster last week and praising her neutral stance on social justice issues the WNBA is known to advocate for.

Caitlin Clark with the Indiana Fever during a June 10 game.
Caitlin Clark with the Indiana Fever during a June 10 game. (David Butler II-USA Today Sports)

The current discourse is both disingenuous and inaccurate–first of all, no, Caitlin Clark shouldn’t be on the Olympic team for a myriad of reasons, from her lack of training camp experience, to concerns over her quick transition from college ball to the WNBA all within a three month span. Adding a summer Olympic trip to the mix? I’m tired even thinking about it. 

But the way broader sports media is handling her ascent is troubling for other reasons—after the announcement of the Olympic roster, nearly everyone in the industry lost their collective minds, with many prominent personalities including Stephen A. Smith and Shannon Sharpe claiming that Clark should get a spot on the roster to market the WNBA. The Wall Street Journal published a pair of articles on the topic, one similarly claiming the so-called snub is harmful to the WNBA because the league is “desperate” to market its product. 

Huh? The WNBA has never looked better, and while that’s thanks in part to Clark, it’s unfair and irresponsible to pin all of the credit on her and to expect her to carry the weight of that pressure. 

It’s also untrue–the WNBA isn’t desperate. It’s thriving. Last season’s championship finals series between the Aces and Liberty attracted a two-decades high in total viewers. The 2023 WNBA All-Star Game garnered 16% more viewers than the previous season in its first primetime airing on ABC, and after Sabrina Ionescu’s record-breaking three-point contest performance, launched a three-point shootout between Ionescu and Steph Curry earlier this year that catapulted viewership of the NBA All-Star Game by 54% from last season. This season, WNBA attendance across teams is the highest it’s been in 26 years. If it weren’t for the plethora of bad women’s basketball takes, WNBA fans would be having a fantastic time.

So to suggest that Clark should get a handout in the form of an Olympic roster spot for the sake of marketing is disrespectful to a variety of stakeholders in the WNBA. First, it’s disrespectful to Clark herself, who, like all other Olympians, should earn her spot on the team. It’s also reminiscent of the aforementioned Ionescu/Curry shootout, when commentator Kenny Smith suggested that Sabrina Ionescu shoot from the women’s line in her three-point shootout with Steph Curry so she could secure the win for herself (and, by his logic, the WNBA) via a competitive advantage. In Ionescu’s words, “if you can shoot, you can shoot,” and she did more to show what female basketball players are capable of with a respectable loss than an easy win. The conversation has also been dismissive of the accomplished WNBA veterans who made the Olympic roster—for sports media to demand one step aside for easy marketing delegitimizes the tremendous amount of work it took to qualify for a team that has won seven consecutive gold medals.

The disrespect shown to accomplished women in sports media who have been covering both men’s and women’s basketball for years cannot be overstated in this context either. While analysts like Andraya Carter, Chiney Ogumike, Elle Duncan, and Monica McNutt earned heaps of well-deserved praise for their past basketball coverage, their expertise is now being called into question by men inside and outside of the sports industry who only started paying real attention to women’s hoops this past March. 

Worse–some are claiming these women’s accomplishments as their own and insisting they know how to best grow the women’s game. There was Stephen A. Smith, who, in a segment featuring Monica McNutt as a guest, rhetorically asked, “Who talks about the WNBA, who talks about women’s sports more than First Take?” 

McNutt had the perfect response: “Stephen A., respectfully, with your platform, you could’ve been doing this three years ago if you wanted to.”

Of course, that viral exchange occurred as the sports world fell into total hysteria, losing their minds over a hard foul that drew ridiculous levels of attention.

Then, the following week, after Smith lectured Andraya Carter on not only women’s basketball marketing, but the marketing of her personal brand, when she argued that Team USA made the right choice in keeping Clark off the roster.

“You are going to be underpaid for what I believe will be an illustrious career,” he told her, “unless you get your mind right about marketing. It matters.” 

Carter’s reply was respectful, sharp, and assertive: “I hear you, Stephen A. But I will not sacrifice my basketball knowledge and my integrity in terms of the game for marketing. My marketing is doing just fine.”

Sports don’t grow and become popular through forced, pedantic conversations about marketing. The NCAA women’s basketball tournament hasn’t exploded in popularity because First Take dedicated a segment to how it should market itself. Softball and volleyball haven’t seen growing ratings because PTI debated its exposure. Women’s sports have grown organically because the fans are already here. Clark’s WNBA debut beat the NHL Playoffs head-to-head on ESPN networks. The NCAA Championship Game outdrew every non-NFL sporting event in 2023 except for the Ohio State-Michigan football game. That doesn’t happen overnight or just because of one person.

WNBA fans are craving more WNBA content, but sports media can’t see the forest for the trees. Why are the Indiana Fever struggling to win games and what challenges is Clark facing in her rookie season? Who are the elite defenders and players who are welcoming her to the league? What about the Aces’ rocky start in spite of the incredible A’ja Wilson or the great play of the Connecticut Sun? WNBA fans have received none of that. As one X user put it best when Smith invoked the name of Donald Trump to go on another Clark-related tangent Friday morning, “Why can’t they just discuss basketball?

Instead, the entire WNBA season has been filled with needless drama, controversy, and debates about everything but the basketball itself. The entirety of the sports media is missing the point and missing the moment. Women’s sports fans don’t need to be infantilized with lectures about how to grow the sport we’ve been watching for decades and women’s sports leagues don’t need to be coddled as though they are fragile objects that can break at any moment. 

It might sound counterintuitive, but for once, the large segment of sports media that hasn’t focused on women’s basketball until 2024 needs to do less, defer to the experts, and just talk about the WNBA as they would any other sport. In doing so, the industry can do far more to grow the game than pretending to care about growing the game. 

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.