‘This is what you’ve worked for’

Caitlin Clark’s much-anticipated professional debut tips off Tuesday in Connecticut as the WNBA seeks to capitalize on unprecedented public interest.

A national television audience and sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville will bear witness to what could be the start of a new era in women’s sports as Clark plays in her first regular season game for the Indiana Fever.

“This is what you’ve worked for and dreamed of, » Clark told members of the media after practice Sunday, « and now you get to put your jersey on for the first real time and go out there and play? More than anything, just soak in the moment. We get to play on the biggest stage. There will be a lot of people there. It’s going to be loud. But you only play your first WNBA game once. »

No women’s basketball player has previously received the kind of attention and adulation as Clark, the two-time national player of the year out of Iowa and college basketball’s all-time leading scorer.

What to know about Caitlin Clark’s debut

  • Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET at Mohegan Sun Arena on ESPN 2.
  • Connecticut is a 5.5-point favorite in the matchup, according to FanDuel.
  • Clark hopes to fuel a significant turnaround for Indiana, coming off a 13-27 campaign. Connecticut was 27-13 in 2023.
  • Her 3,951 points in 139 games (28.4 points per game) at Iowa is the most ever in a college hoops career.

Her scoring prowess, though, pales in comparison to her off-the-court feats, bringing more attention to women’s college basketball than ever before. Clark recently appeared on a segment on « Saturday Night Live » to comically punch back at doubters of women’s sports.

The WNBA is hopeful that Clark’s star appeal will translate to the pros.

Her Hawkeyes fell to South Carolina in the NCAA title game on April 7, which drew 18.9 million TV viewers, topping the audience of 14.8 million that watched Connecticut beat Purdue in the men’s championship. It was the first time more people watched the women’s basketball final than the men’s, Nielsen said.

Clark’s entrance to the WNBA, not so coincidentally, comes as teams will, for the first time, fly charter for all games — like their male professional counterparts — and avoid security lines, cramped commercial spaces and layovers.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told NBC News this week that the league is banking on a monster TV deal next year.

“We need the ecosystem, essentially, the sports ecosystem, to step up,” Engelbert said on “NBC Nightly News with Hallie Jackson.” “And I feel really good that that’s going to happen with our next media rights negotiation, as well as our corporate partners. Our phones are ringing off the hook.”

Clark’s draft class also brings considerable on- and off-the-court star power to the WNBA.

LSU post player Angel Reese, dubbed « Bayou Barbie, » with 3.1 million Instagram followers, was taken with the No. 7 draft pick by the Chicago Sky. Stanford forward Cameron Brink, boasting nearly 800,000 followers on the platform, was taken No. 2 by the Los Angeles Sparks. Her godmother is Sonya Curry, the mom of Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, the NBA’s greatest 3-point shooter.

“We’re trying to double revenue, we’re trying to triple things, we’re trying to quadruple things, five-times things, and it’s working,” Engelbert said. “It’s literally working, but it’ll take a few more years.”

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