Caitlin Clark builds on ’99 US soccer moment in lifting women’s sports

A year and a half ago, the vast majority of Americans had no idea who she was: an athletic young woman hidden away in a Midwestern college town, known to women’s college basketball fans but hidden from the gaze of the national media.

now Caitlin Clark She is the country’s most popular athlete, the driving force behind the greatest days in women’s sports history, America’s girl next door all grown up, and the embodiment of everything the country hoped a ninth title would give us.

Grandmothers who shop in the produce section know her name. So do the boys on the aisle who scream after they jump into a long jumper. Television ratings that were unthinkable a few months ago are now the norm; No one laughed when Women’s basketball easily outperformed men’s During this year’s NCAA Championships. It made sense because of her.

The country’s largest basketball arenas sell out within hours of arriving in town. It happened in college, and now it happens in the pros. Disney+ has decided to stream its first-ever live sporting event, the first WNBA regular season game on Tuesday night. Indiana in Connecticut. Her No. 22 jersey flies off the virtual shelves, worn by thousands of girls, and probably thousands of boys too, all of whom have parents and grandparents who would never have worn a women’s jersey, no way, no way. .

It’s really cool. This complete fascination with the athleticism of a team sport. When did something like this ever happen? Have we seen anything like this?

Two young Indiana Fever fans hold signs for Caitlin Clark before a preseason game last week.

A quarter century ago, yes. On July 10, 1999, a sunny Saturday in Southern California, 90,185 fans filled the Rose Bowl, many of them fathers and mothers with their daughters, to watch the United States women’s national soccer team defeat China on penalty kicks in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Women’s World Cup Final. If you were alive at the time, you probably remember where you were when Brandi Chastain scored the game-winning goal, then ripped off her shirt and hit it over her head. Lucky for me, I was in the press box covering every second of it.

Like Clark, the stars of that team became household names that summer. They were featured in viral TV commercials and were admired by the national media. Following their win, Chastain and her teammates appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, People and Sports Illustrated in the same week, the first and only time any story had ever happened.

For me, 22-year-old Clarke is the one-man version of this team. It was abundantly clear in the summer of 1999, and it’s clear now that the nation has fallen in love with what it was created for Title IX, the 1972 law that opened the floodgates For girls and women to exercise.

The WNBA keeps Caitlin Clark in the national spotlight

But the paths of the 99ers and Clark diverge. After a brief period of hype and television interviews subsided that summer, the USWNT largely disappeared, only to reappear in September 2000 at the Summer Olympics in Australia, where it won a silver medal. There were some friendlies and tournaments, sure, and plenty of newspaper stories, Olympic performances and honors, including a Sports Illustrated Sportswomen of the Year cover, but most importantly, there was no professional league, yet. This did not happen until 2001.

So, all in all, when the 99ers left the huge national stage of the Women’s World Cup, they were gone for 14 months.

When Clark and her The University of Iowa teammates lost to South Carolina in the 2024 NCAA final, Clark was also gone for eight days. (During this period she actually appeared as a guest on “Saturday Night Live” To elicit comments.)

On that eighth day, he became Clark No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, Which received record television ratings. Unlike football players, she had a league to go to and a season to play, right away: the league, the WNBA, and a team, the Indiana Fever, eager to promote her and her fellow up-and-comers and ready to ride. The massive ratings momentum and fan interest it gained.

In addition, there is another league, the NBA, the WNBA’s big brother, which provides significant and unprecedented assistance, including promoting Clark and the WNBA to his 45.8 million X (formerly Twitter) followers. Never before has one of the nation’s four major men’s leagues — the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL — provided the kind of support for women’s sports that the NBA will this year.

Red, white and blue versus black and gold

Clark’s grip on the nation was made even more apparent by another USWNT inconsistency in 1999. The soccer players were clearly representing a national team wearing red, white and blue, representing the United States in a major international competition, and the entire nation was cheering for them.

But Clark? She wore the black and gold of the Iowa Hawkeyes, where she became a household name — Iowa, just one of hundreds of teams in women’s college basketball, and not even one of the prominent schools known in the women’s game before her arrival.

The fact that Clarke has become a national phenomenon while never representing the country in a major way (she was on the U.S. U-16 and U-19 national teams, away from the media spotlight) has to be a first in women’s sports.

Almost all the big names in women’s sports – Olympic stars like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, Alison Felix, Mikaela Shiffrin, Bonnie Blair, and Peggy Fleming, and tennis players like Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Serena, and more. Venus Williams and golfers such as Nancy Lopez and Michelle Wie, to name a few – have gained or enhanced their reputation at the Olympic Games or at major international sporting events such as the World Championships, Wimbledon or the US Open. American fans became interested in them, in large part, because they were first introduced to them as athletes representing the country. It’s especially easy to rejoice in that.

What is Clark’s launching pad to becoming the most popular athlete in the country? Iowa City, Iowa, now Indianapolis. Not New York. Not Los Angeles. Not Chicago. The interest of sports fans in her and her wonderful antics, the triangular logo and the precise passes along the floor, grew organically from the heartland to the coasts, and not the other way around.

This makes everything that happens to and around Clark all the more impressive. No one forced this on anyone. It wasn’t media driven. It was the fans who did it. People want to spend their money to see it. They want to buy her shirt. They want to wait in line for hours to get into the building where you play.

In this way, Caitlin Clark’s influence once again bears a strong resemblance to what happened in the United States with the women’s national soccer team in June and July of 1999. What happened that magical summer changed the way Americans felt about female athletes. . Women’s sports were the place, a ticket coveted by parents of girls, yes, but also by a man who vowed to never pay to watch women’s sports, until he did.

Thanks to this extraordinary support, not a day goes by without members of the 1999 team, many of whom are now high-profile sports leaders and media personalities, speaking about their impact, the privilege of being role models and their hopes for the future. The future of girls and women in sports.

They spoke often about their heritage, about what they created, and the atmosphere and mentality that allowed the nation to not only accept and support girls and women in sports, but to celebrate and support them.

They also dreamed in the summer of 1999, wondering who would come after them. Who will you be? Where was she, the next person who would send a bolt of lightning through American sports and culture, the person who would fill arenas and talk about opportunities for female athletes just as they did, who would go out of her way to sign autographs just as they did? They did it, which they had imagined in their wildest dreams?

It turns out they just had to wait until she was born in Iowa, then give her another 22 years.

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