Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Caitlin Clark’s Omission From Team USA Raises Conflicting Opinions

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The Caitlin Clark discourse found yet another level after the final roster for the U.S. women’s basketball team, set to play at the upcoming Paris Olympics, was revealed late Friday night. The Indiana Fever rookie was not among the 12 named to the roster, a team that includes WNBA stars such as A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum, Sabrina Ionescu and Diana Taurasi.

Vocal Clark fans and some prominent media members claim that by not adding her to the team, USA Basketball, which builds teams for international competition, has squandered a huge opportunity to market women’s basketball at the highest level.

 “The [WNBA] needs more eyes on it. Nobody has done a better job of that than Caitlin Clark,” Bob Dorfman—a veteran sports marketing analyst, author and creative director—said in a phone interview. “There seems to be a bit of animosity about how she’s kind of come in and taken over. There’s, I guess, some jealousy, but on the other hand, what she’s done for the league is invaluable. Massive crowds, record breaking attendance, record breaking ratings. So in that sense, you sort of got to be there if you want people to watch the team during the Olympics.”

Dorfman acknowledged that Clark wouldn’t have played a lot because of how stacked Team USA is at guard, but he believes that those few minutes would net huge returns on television. “You’re going to get an audience that’s not necessarily a big hardcore (basketball) audience, because it’s the Olympics. If you really want to broaden the market, build the market, get more fans, get more people excited about women’s basketball, it really feels like she’s got to be there.”

But not everyone sees this as a huge missed opportunity. Rick Burton—the David B. Falk Endowed Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University, who served as the chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee for the Beijing Olympics in 2008—thinks Clark not being picked was about balancing merit and team focus—and the attention that Clark would bring couldn’t outweigh her inexperience.

“While she was amazing in college, she has not been the best player in the WNBA nor should have anyone expected her to be the best player,” Burton said in a phone interview. “She is just learning to be a professional.

“I think [USA Basketball was weighing] were they picking her because she was popular or were they picking her because she was one of the 12 best players that they could bring for the type of game that the coach wanted to play? … USA Basketball would have been thinking about this team chemistry and team cohesion based on the other players they were going to pick.”

Burton made sure to relay that the wider U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee had no impact on USA Basketball’s selections. Clark couldn’t work out with the team in April because Team USA’s last training camp took place at the same time as the Women’s Final Four, where she closed her stellar collegiate career. The team that head coach Cheryl Reeve and her staff has put together is heavy on experience in international play, which tends to be more physical than the WNBA or college.

Additionally, not all the attention that has followed Clark has been good attention, something that the guard herself has acknowledged after a recent Fever practice. In a hyperpartisan media environment, the hard foul that Chicago Sky guard Chennedy Carter committed against Clark—it was upgraded to a flagrant—checked every box for controversy, even drawing comments from a former WNBA owner and a sitting U.S. congressman from Indiana.

“I think that in the short term, [USA Basketball] believe the values that she would bring might be offset by a number of other issues,” Burton said. “She would become this media magnet without being maybe necessarily the best player on the team.”

If you thought there was outrage for a WNBA game, imagine if Clark got hip-checked late in a preliminary round game against Belgium. Would the resulting outrage be worth the attention on the global stage? “The fact is, we’re still talking about it that foul and ultimately that’s good,” Dorfman said. “The WNBA is in the news, and the staying in the news..”

Dorfman also believed that the team may already have a potential distraction on the current roster with Brittney Griner, who will be playing overseas for the first time since she was released from her 2022 detention in Russia.

The USA Basketball women’s senior program itself, which hasn’t lost an Olympic contest since 1992 nor been defeated in international competition since 2006, is expected to take home an eighth consecutive gold medal despite stiff competition from Australia, Spain and host country France. The sheer dominance of the women’s hoops team hasn’t gotten the same marketing buzz compared to not only their male counterparts in basketball but fellow USA teams in women’s gymnastics, swimming (men and women) and even women’s soccer.

Could the Paris Games present more sponsorship and business opportunities to the players who were actually selected? Dorfman said the Olympics could help almost any of the younger players on the team such as Ionescu, Plum or Jackie Young, but cautioned that the team’s dominance could be a detriment to their exposure.

“The question is, how badly are they going to win every game?” he said. “Some of the excitement with the men’s team now is that there’s competition, and so the games are interesting because there’s international teams that can beat them. So in that sense, maybe it’ll be more interesting if the games are close. There are some other teams that can give them good games if they don’t run away with it as much as everybody expects them to.”

Regardless, Team USA should still expect a sizable audience if it reaches the gold medal game as expected. During the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, 7.9 million people watched the final against Japan, which at the time was the most watched women’s basketball game of any kind in at least five years. (The U.S. men’s team drew 9.2 million in their final against France.) Going back to 2012, 10.2 million watched the U.S. women take gold against France in the London Games.  

“Women’s basketball is as strong as it’s ever been, and the American team is going to be great, whether Caitlin is on that team or not,” Burton said. “The Olympics itself is their own marketing machine. NBC is going to hype the women’s games. There are 12 other great players on the women’s team, and they will be hyped appropriately.”

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