Forget the online rancor, Caitlin Clark helping WNBA break through to fans of all ages

ATLANTA — To experience Caitlin Clark as a topic on the internet and to experience her playing basketball in real life are two very different things.

On social media sites, she is a blank canvas for bad-faith actors to push agendas and stir discord. But in person, she's doing what the world’s most online sports fans seem to hate the most.

She’s making more people enjoy watching sports.

How dare she.

What happened Friday night here in Atlanta in Clark’s first trip with the Indiana Fever is not particularly novel during her first go-round in the WNBA. She sold out State Farm Arena, filling more than 17,500 seats while delivering an entertaining 16-point, 7-assist performance that helped Indiana get out of town with a 91-79 win.

It was, by far, the most people who have ever seen a WNBA game in the history of Atlanta sports. With any luck, it won't be the last time for many of them. And it's happening all over the country as Clark barnstorms from town to town during her rookie year.

Inddiana Fever guards Erica Wheeler (17) and Caitlin Clark (22) look on during Friday night's game against the Atlanta Dream.
Inddiana Fever guards Erica Wheeler (17) and Caitlin Clark (22) look on during Friday night's game against the Atlanta Dream.

“I always say if they come into at least one game, they usually come back,” Atlanta’s veteran forward Nia Coffey said.

For all the backlash to Clark and the attention she has received, that’s the reality smart people in the WNBA understand. She’s going to get people in the door, and it’s up to everyone else to turn their product from a novelty into a staple. It’s so simple, the actual blueprint for how Clark is changing women's basketball, that it’s almost comical how much time the comment sections have spent arguing over it.

And that’s where the disconnect occurs between how people are experiencing the Clark phenomenon online and what’s actually happening — as they were in Atlanta on Friday when a lot of real human beings paid real money to fill an arena that even some very good NBA teams have struggled to sell out in years past.

On the internet, the overheated discourse around everything Clark does or has nothing to do with — much of it racially coded — might make one think that her mere presence is a powder keg that her most ardent supporters and those who now resent her popularity are ready to detonate at any given moment.

What actually happens when she walks into an arena couldn't be further from that nonsense.

The crowd that showed up to see Clark on Friday was a typical Atlanta melting pot: suburbanites mixing with rappers, socialites and ex-athletes, families and young professionals. It seemed like anyone in the state of Georgia with a connection to Iowa was in the building wearing black and gold, but the majority of people in attendance were supporting the Atlanta Dream.

Maybe these fans are so new to the WNBA that they haven’t yet developed a dislike for other teams or players. Maybe they aren’t emotionally invested in their own team yet. Regardless, it was an incredibly positive atmosphere all the way around that the players truly appreciated.

It didn’t square with this notion that Clark is generating some huge backlash. It was just a really cool experience being enjoyed by everyone from 2 Chainz and Allen Iverson to a whole bunch of little kids wearing jerseys with No. 22 on the back.

“It’s fun going to all these new cities as a rookie and getting to play in front of their crowds. You could feel the energy in the building tonight and that’s what makes basketball so fun,” Clark said.

Sorry haters, but it was really fun to watch Clark fly up and down the court launching deep bomb 3-pointers, controlling the floor with her pace and tossing diagonal crosscourt passes to corner shooters that would have made Trae Young a little jealous.

And for all the things people who talk and write and tweet about Clark want her to represent, she has been very clear about two things: She wants to play great basketball, and she wants to make the WNBA popular just as she made women’s college basketball more popular.

The rest is just noise being made by people using Clark to promote their own causes. She isn’t acknowledging it, she isn’t stoking it, she isn’t buying into it. She's just hooping, and people of all demographics are responding because deep down they know she’s already doing things in this game that are rare.

“You want to perform for them, you want to do great for them,” Clark said. "And a lot of people spent a lot of time and money to come watch our team and enjoy the experience and because we’re playing great basketball a lot of them are going to come back and that's a good thing.”

Who could argue with that?

And it's only the beginning.

Friday was Indiana’s fourth win in a row, bringing the Fever’s record to 7-10 after winning just 13 games all of last year. The game is slowing down for Clark, who is playing with more clarity on offense even while defenses guard her all 94 feet and send multiple people to try to get the ball out of her hands. She’s only going to get better. And it's hard to imagine the crowds not coming back, especially the way she’s been performing lately.

In fact, Clark said she was surprised that Sunday’s game against the Chicago Sky and her college foil Angel Reese wasn’t going to be played at the United Center as opposed to their regular 10,000-seat facility given that their two matchups this season have resulted in hard fouls and several days worth of content to fuel the outrage machine.

But as usual, Clark took the level-headed route, allowing everyone else to fire off their takes because she knows the game should be enough.

“I’m pretty sure the only people who view this as a rivalry is (the media),” Clark said. "For us it's just a game of basketball. If it's going to help move the game forward, that’s amazing. That’s the way it should be.”

But actually, Friday is the way it should be: A full arena with a diverse crowd, enjoying a WNBA game without the rancor and vitriol that has become part and parcel of the Clark discourse online.

This was just good basketball, brought to you by a phenomenal rookie and a league that is finally breaking through to regular people who just want to see something cool. The Clark show delivered in her first trip to Atlanta. Hopefully your city will be next.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Caitlin Clark, Indiana Fever bring sold-out crowd to Atlanta Dream