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Iowa's Caitlin Clark draws historic viewership numbers for WNBA broadcast partner CBS

CBS aired four WNBA games on its main network last year

It's a full sweep for Caitlin Clark and her Iowa Hawkeyes.

The Big Ten championship game between Iowa and Nebraska averaged more than 3 million viewers and peaked at 4.45 million viewers when it went to overtime on CBS, the company announced on Tuesday. Iowa won its third consecutive Big Ten title, 94-89, after Clark bounced back from a four-point first half.

It is the seventh network to reach historic rating marks from the national interest in Clark, the NCAA all-time leading scorer after passing Pete Maravich's legendary record this month. And the final of the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC; plus Fox) to post most-watched numbers for Iowa games.

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Unlike most of those other networks, CBS is already a WNBA broadcast partner with potential to air more Clark games this year when she's in the pros. Clark said she will enter the 2024 WNBA Draft, where she's likely to go No. 1 to the Indiana Fever. She's expected to boost attendance and viewership numbers immediately with casual viewers tuning in to see her.

"Given the numbers that the Iowa women's team has been pulling in on big networks ... It's just an indication of all the disruption in media and now how broadcast partners are looking at the women's game — the women's college game as well as the WNBA," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said on a video call with a group of reporters last week. "Yeah, we're getting calls about [her games]."

CBS aired the Big Ten title game at 12 p.m. ET (9 a.m. PT and 11 local time in Minneapolis) as a lead-in to its men's slate for the day. It was the most-watched basketball game, college or pro, of the day on any network, CBS Sports said.

Iowa and Clark hold the crown of most-watched women's basketball games of all time on ABC, Big Ten Network, FOX, FS1, NBC and Peacock. Iowa's quarterfinal against Penn State (1.04M) and semifinal against Michigan (1.075M) re-set the Big Ten Network's high and are the second- and third-most watched basketball games in BTN history. Fox aired the Iowa-Ohio State regular season finale (3.39M) in which Clark passed Maravich for the most-watched women's basketball game since that 1999. The highest-viewed game is Iowa and LSU in the 2023 national championship game that drew 9.9 million on ABC.

It did not reach that all-time level for CBS, but came close. The Big Ten title game was the most-watched women's college basketball game on the CBS networks in 25 years. A Jan. 10, 1999, meeting between legendary rivals UConn and Tennessee averaged 3.879 million viewers.

The CBS numbers are notable because the broadcaster began airing WNBA games in 2019 mainly on CBS Sports Network. Four games aired on the main CBS network last year, providing a larger reach for the league as it focuses on household names, rivalries and "games of consequence," Engelbert said.

Engelbert said the broadcast assignments of games are "generally done" by this time and it wasn't official that Clark would enter the league until Feb. 29. It's also not official — though it is almost certain — that she will be drafted by the Fever.

Indiana opens its 2024 schedule on the road at the Connecticut Sun, featuring MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas, on May 14. The home opener is May 16 in Indianapolis against Finals runner-up New York with MVP Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot.

Indiana plays the super-team again four days later at Barclays Center in New York for a 1 p.m. ET tip on a Saturday. Seats in the upper 200 level are already going for around $140 each on secondary sites. Tickets for the lower bowl on the Liberty's official website begin at $300 as of Tuesday morning.

The day and time slot for Indiana-New York lines up with CBS games aired last season, including their first between the Sun and Liberty. The WNBA released the broadcast schedule one week before the season tipped last year.

All eyes are on Caitlin Clark as the NCAA tournament tips off. (Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
All eyes are on Caitlin Clark as the NCAA tournament tips off. (Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The WNBA has been working to connect college fandom with the professional league. More household names could declare for the draft over the next month, including Stanford's Cameron Brink, UConn's Aaliyah Edwards and LSU's Angel Reese. Paige Bueckers said she is staying at UConn after redshirting last season.

"Broadcast partners certainly are cognizant of the lift that is coming out of the NCAA system," Engelbert said. "We're very cognizant of that, making sure we're carrying that momentum into the WNBA from a fandom perspective and that we're reaching fans that the NCAA women's game is reaching and bringing them into the WNBA and watch."

Viewership was up 21 percent on ESPN Networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2) and CBS Television Network over the 2022 regular season, the WNBA said in September. The numbers for 2023 were the largest regular-season viewership in two decades. The media rights deal runs through 2025 and has been a focus for Engelbert. Most games air on ESPN Networks. ION, NBA TV, Prime Video, Meta and Twitter all aired games last year.

"It's all confluence of all this positive momentum that's going to help us in our next media deal negotiations and with corporate partners, so that that's helpful too," Engelbert said. "And I think, as corporate partners see the diversity in our league and they see what our fan base can bring to their business, that we're getting a big lift off the NCAA excitement on that as well."

A large part of that is Clark, who continues to be the game's biggest draw.