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Iowa v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

When the Caitlin Clark effect took over Evanston

It was Clark’s third game at Northwestern, but Welsh-Ryan welcomed something it had never seen before.

“Yep, she’s walking out.”

That’s what I said to Inside NU editor-in-chief Iggy Dowling and managing editor Sophia Vlahakis when I heard a chorus of applause an hour before tipoff inside the Welsh-Ryan arena. Being in the media row on the third floor, I couldn’t even see that security was leading Caitlin Clark onto the court. But from the sudden excitement that emerged, I just knew. I didn’t even have to say her name for people to know who I was referring to.

Clark, the reigning Wooden Award winner, and No. 3 Iowa (20-2, 9-1 B1G) came to Evanston on Wednesday and dominated Northwestern (7-14, 2-8 B1G) in a 110-74 rout. She tallied 35 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, and passed Kelsey Mitchell to become the all-time Big Ten leading scorer and move up to second all-time in NCAA women’s basketball scoring. The game was the first-ever sold-out matchup in Northwestern women’s basketball history.

But to summarize that night based on those aforementioned highlights would be like reading the Wikipedia description of a movie without actually watching it. What those written highlights couldn’t capture was two straight hours of the biggest star in college basketball controlling a crowd of 7,039 people at her fingertips.

Iowa v Northwestern
Clark signs a jersey after Iowa’s matchup at Northwestern.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There was the ridiculous pregame line outside Welsh-Ryan that extended beyond the parking lot, filled with people decked out in black and yellow No. 22 jerseys. Or the screams of “Caitlin!” from little children which ensued from start to finish, to the point where the echoes of her name were audible from inside the media room. “Oohs” and “ahhs” filled the arena whenever she dished a crazy assist, and deafening roars erupted whenever she hit a three or sprinted down the court to make a layup. She got boos and an “airball” chant from the Northwestern student section, but given the empty student sections at most NU women’s basketball games, it was evident that many of those jeering only came to watch her. When she entered and exited the game, she received standing ovations.

Clark was the maestro of the moment — regardless of what she did, the entire building revolved around her.

“It’s not something you ever take for granted,” Clark said of the atmosphere in Welsh-Ryan. “I think it’s kind crazy [that] people are screaming my name so much — it’s not something you really ever get used to.”

Of course, all of this mania is a consequence of Clark’s talent. Her dominance and flashy style of play brought her an explosion of popularity following the 2023 NCAA Tournament, and now there were people across the country willing to go out of their way to get a glimpse of her play. Although she had been a successful player since her freshman season (the last time Clark visited Welsh-Ryan in January 2022, the attendance was a mere 1,578), her newfound superstardom changed things.

This version of Clark, one that was different from when she was held to eight points in Evanston back in January 2021 and when she played Northwestern to overtime in January 2022, was a lightning rod.

“It’s like she’s playing Guitar Hero on level expert and everybody else is on level easy,” said Meghan McKeown, a Big Ten Network analyst and daughter of Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown. “She shoots from any logo on the floor and it’s a great shot for her. For most people, it’s a bad shot. For her, it’s a good shot.

“And she’s doing this under a microscope at the age of 22. She’s got security with her all the time, and there’s people obsessed with trying to get to her, so she’s trying to live as normal of a life as possible with all this hoopla surrounding her. I think she carries herself very well.”

Sure, Northwestern might just have been one stop on Iowa’s season-long tour of sellouts. But the craze that her mere presence on this campus caused shows just how strong the impact of the “Caitlin Clark effect” can be, going even beyond herself.

As soon as Big Ten women’s basketball schedules were made official back in October, Iowa’s road matchups were circled on the calendars of athletic departments across the conference. The Hawkeyes set the precedent of selling out all of their season tickets in August, foreshadowing the demand for their road matchups — wherever Clark went, people would follow. From the start, it was clear that when Iowa was in town, you wouldn’t get a normal women’s basketball matchup.

“Even a year ago, we marked on the calendar: ‘Caitlin Clark is coming to Evanston’,” Northwestern Wildside (student section) president Kayla Cohen said. “People were so excited to see her because she’s this big celebrity, and some of [the Northwestern students] were super, super pumped about this game well in advance.”

Yes, some programs like Indiana (which averaged 8,104 in attendance last season) already have a strong women’s basketball fanbase. But the average attendance of a non-Iowa Big Ten home game was 4,044 people, while the average non-Iowa Big Ten arena capacity is 14,572. So when Iowa proceeded to sell out the arenas of all of its conference opponents, adjustments needed to be made.

All but two of Iowa’s road opponents upped their single-game prices for their game against the Hawkeyes, and many of them increased event staff. According to Rutgers director of ticket operations Adam Marcus, the university implemented reserved seating rather than general admission seating in Jersey Mike’s Arena for the entire women’s basketball season as a result of its game against Iowa. At Purdue, the issue was guiding crowds of new fans, many of them Iowa supporters, who were unfamiliar with Mackey Arena. According to the school’s director of ticket operations Jason Bunger, the demographic of Purdue’s women’s matchup versus Iowa was much different from what Mackey typically sees at a sold-out men’s game.

At Northwestern though, the biggest issue was the student ticketing system.

At the start of the 2023-24 season, NU implemented a student ticket claim system for home men’s basketball games, as a response to high demand to see the team last school year. Students earned points from going to non-men’s basketball games, and those with the most points had first dibs on claiming tickets for men’s basketball matchups. When Northwestern’s women’s game vs. Iowa sold out back in October, the idea of instituting the ticket claim system for it was seriously considered — especially with the game having limited student seating.

Katie Prchlik, Northwestern’s director for marketing and fan engagement, was initially in favor of instilling the ticket claim system for the Iowa game. Despite Clark’s star power, the reality was that Northwestern student turnout for women’s basketball games was very low, never really exceeding 200 to 300 people since Prchlik came to Northwestern in the fall of 2022. With no precedent of a packed women’s basketball student section and the game falling during midterm week, she wasn’t confident that student turnout would be as heavy as the general public’s attendance. For that reason, she thought the claim system would help her gauge the exact number of students who would show up. It wouldn’t have been wise to have empty student seats when they could have been sold to general admission.

Prchlik pointed out that when Northwestern hosted a ranked Notre Dame team last season in November, the student section was virtually empty, showing that a good team hadn’t been enough in the past to fill up seats. But Iowa wasn’t your regular “good team.”

“But the student numbers have never backed. So the goal was just to have an idea of like, will we actually have full student spots in those areas? Because that’s what the team wants, and that’s what we need atmosphere-wise for this game.”

However, on the day before Prchlik and her team were set to send out information about a ticket claim system around two weeks before the game, Cohen and other Wildside team members pushed Prchlik to make the game first-come, first-serve for students. And in the end, they succeeded.

Cohen’s main concern was that students would attempt to sell their tickets, a worry that stemmed from how expensive they were going on resale. Twenty-four hours before the match, the cheapest ticket to this game on StubHub was a whopping $189 before fees. In addition, she thought that it was too late to instill a ticket claim system, as students in the Wildside GroupMe chat had been told for weeks on end that the Iowa game would be first-come, first-serve.

“If you get too close to the game and change how people anticipate how they’re going to get there, then that’s dangerous,” Cohen said. “[Tickets] are going for so much more than any other basketball game you’ve seen in Welsh-Ryan this year. And if you can sell it to some random adult for $100, students are going to take that sale. For students that go to an expensive university, we’re living on budgets for the most part. It’s just market forces, right? This is the study of economics.”

Worries beyond student tickets arose from the security issues that came with hosting a famous athlete like Clark. Even Prchlik, who witnessed Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles attending a Nebraska gymnastics meet in her time as the Cornhuskers’ assistant director of marketing and fan experience, acknowledged that dealing with an actively competing high-profile individual was an unprecedented situation for her.

A glimpse of the Northwestern student section that came out to watch the Wildcats’ matchup against Iowa.
Northwestern Athletics

Like most of the schools that Iowa faced on the road, Northwestern hired personal security for Clark. But following Clark’s collision with an Ohio State fan, which happened when the Buckeyes upset Iowa in Columbus on Jan. 21 and their fans stormed the court, the subject of security became much more imminent. The incident sparked a meeting between Prchlik and her team, where they made emergency plans in case an unexpected event occurred while Clark was present — with a potential court storm being one of those scenarios.

“The Ohio State game definitely prompted that conversation, because I’m sure a lot of us were thinking about it, but we hadn’t talked to each other [about it],” Prchlik said. “It’s better to have the plan and not use it than to have a situation where you’re not prepared for it.”

In the end, the first-come, first-serve method worked out, as Northwestern students showed up on Wednesday night and filled the section reserved for them. And since Iowa beat Northwestern by 36, there was obviously no court storm. But unprecedented games meant that unprecedented scenarios would happen, and NU needed to be prepared for anything that came at it.

As historic as it was, aspects of Wednesday night’s atmosphere felt bittersweet to Northwestern. The sold-out crowd stuck out like a sore thumb, with Welsh-Ryan’s average women’s basketball attendance being 1,669 this season not counting the Iowa game. From the “Let’s go Hawks” chants that began at the start of the game to 90% of the stands being filled with black and yellow, it felt as if the Wildcats were getting their home court infiltrated.

It sucked to admit it, but the majority of the crowd wasn’t here for the ‘Cats, and everyone knew it. Clark even said that she had Iowa’s match against Northwestern circled on her calendar because she anticipated that strong Hawkeye contingent would be present.

“It’d be nice to see that every game,” junior guard Melanie Daley, who led Northwestern with 19 points on Wednesday night, said of the full student section. “Part of it was the fact that we were we were playing Caitlin Clark, and so I think people came really to see her play.”

“It’s great that we have such competitive women’s sports and exciting teams in the [Big Ten] that they can come to Evanston and sell out Welsh-Ryan,” said Cohen, who was one of three students who showed up to Welsh-Ryan when Northwestern played Illinois on Jan. 14. “And do I wish Veronica Burton, Paige Mott or Caroline Lau could create a sellout at Welsh? Yes...but [they] haven’t yet, and I think they should.”

For Joe and Meghan McKeown, part of the sense of what could have been comes from the COVID-19 pandemic overlapping with Northwestern’s most successful years. Before the Iowa game, both of them said that Northwestern’s victory over Illinois to capture the Big Ten regular season title was the most electric Welsh-Ryan women’s basketball atmosphere it had been in — a game where 4,016 people were in the stands and students stormed the court when it ended. Joe McKeown said after the Iowa game that he believes that Northwestern could have sold out the two matches that it was set to host in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, had they not been canceled due to the pandemic.

A year later, when the Wildcats made their second straight NCAA Tournament and got to the second round, attendance restrictions due to COVID-19 were put in place. This once again marked a missed opportunity to grow women’s basketball attendance in Evanston — in a way where the stands would be filled with purple, rather than with fans coming to watch a player on the opposing team.

“What stinks [was that] Northwestern women’s basketball was at an all-time high when COVID hit,” Meghan McKeown said. “[Its success] could have brought a lot of fans and a lot of new women’s basketball fans and Northwestern fans. So I think there’s some bittersweetness to some missed opportunities that are out of everyone’s control because of what happened with COVID.”

However, despite any hard feelings about attendance numbers, Northwestern has a lot of respect for Clark. Ultimately, a sellout is a sellout, regardless of who caused it. And for NU to be at a point where a female athlete can single-handedly pack an arena is progress in itself.

Both Joe McKeown and Northwestern senior guard Jasmine McWilliams were very complimentary of Clark. McKeown, who coached against women’s basketball legends such as Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi in his time at George Washington, thinks that Clark belongs in the same category as them in terms of being one of the toughest players his teams have faced.

Iowa v Northwestern
Iowa fans at Welsh-Ryan arena.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

“I’m a big fan of [Clark]. I think she’s humble, and the way she handles herself,” McKeown said. “I hope the WNBA embraces that too, wherever she ends up.”

“The spotlight she’s put on the sport is amazing,” McWilliams said. “[Iowa] going to the Elite Eight, Final Four, all that last year, was first of all, great for the Big Ten in showcasing how great our teams are here, but also just showcasing how great women’s basketball. The fact that she’s selling out all these stadiums wherever she goes is amazing.”

However, Clark’s impact goes beyond just attendance and viewership — she’s changing the way people look at women’s basketball as a sport. Meghan McKeown, who specializes in covering Big Ten women’s basketball and WNBA games, says that she wasn’t taken seriously as a basketball analyst until Clark gained popularity.

“Before Caitlin Clark, people wouldn’t necessarily engage me in conversation for my basketball opinion,” McKeown said. “But now that I cover her as much as I do, the number one question I get asked [is] about her and her game. It’s great that people are now seeing that women’s basketball is on the same level as the men’s, but it took an absolute once-in-a-lifetime generational talent for people to even view it as remotely the same.”

The respect between Clark and Northwestern is mutual. Clark said that former Wildcat Veronica Burton is still the toughest Big Ten defender that she’s ever had to face, as Burton helped hold her to the lowest point total of her entire collegiate career. She also credited Daley for constantly playing well against Iowa, and Joe McKeown for being “amazing” for women’s basketball.

But most importantly, Clark understands the weight of her greatness and embraces it.

“I think [the atmosphere] just shows what people are willing to give to be able to watch our team I always want to take time and sign a couple of autographs after and try to play the best I can... Not many people one, get the chance to come see us play, and two, a lot of people are spending a lot of time, money and resources to have these opportunities that hopefully will give them memories for the rest of their lives.”

Sure, the story of Wednesday wasn’t about Northwestern, despite it taking place on the school’s campus. But the scene that Clark transformed Welsh-Ryan into was nothing short of incredible. She had Wildside and Northwestern Athletics working overtime to plan an out-of-the-ordinary event, and emotions ran high for the Wildcats, whether it was in a positive or poignant way.

Because of Clark, people showed up at Northwestern for women’s sports in a way that they have never before, and that’s what matters the most.

“I think more importantly, just for our players, just to be in that atmosphere to know that people care about our sport,” Joe McKeown said. “I think that’s what’s to me the big picture of this.”

Iowa v Northwestern
Clark, being guarded by Northwestern sophomore Caroline Lau, drives to the basket.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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