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Caitlin Clark is still drawing massive crowds to the WNBA, despite some bumps

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When two struggling teams in a pro sports league play each other, it can be a tough sell, except this year in the WNBA. Twenty thousand fans turned out for last Friday's game between the Indiana Fever and the Washington Mystics.

(CHEERING)

RASCOE: For the sold-out crowd here in Washington, D.C., a huge draw was rookie phenom Caitlin Clark. And longtime NPR staffer and now the network's new sports correspondent, Becky Sullivan, was in the crowd. Becky, congrats on the new gig.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Thank you.

RASCOE: So, Caitlin Clark - she's talked about as possibly the best woman's college basketball player ever. How's the transition to the pros going?

SULLIVAN: You know, so the season, the WNBA season, started just over or just under a month ago. And Clark actually struggled at first. She had 10 turnovers in her first game. Turnovers have continued to be a problem. She leads the league in turnovers. And then at first, also, she was struggling to hit three-pointers, which is really her sort of signature game in college. But at this Friday night game, that came after a couple days of rest for Clark's Indiana Fever team, and that made all of the difference, apparently. She hit 30 points. It's a high for her. Eight rebounds, six assists, hit more than half her shots - it was a great game by any measure.

RASCOE: So why had she been struggling?

SULLIVAN: I think a big part of the reason is that there is this very quick turnaround from college basketball in the WNBA, you know, whereas men coming from college. They have, like, the benefit of this long off season, 'cause the NBA doesn't start until October. The WNBA, you know, the draft was only one week after the college championship game, which Clark played, and the regular season started just about a month after that. And the Fever, her team, had lots of games in quick succession. And so, you know, Clark was talking about this on Friday night, and she was basically like, that's part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAITLIN CLARK: All of us would say, like, that's just not ideal. It's not an ideal way to play basketball. I think you could see the exhaustion on our faces. More mentally than probably physically, obviously. Physically we're exhausted, but I think mentally, it's hard to stay sharp in those moments when you're going game to game.

RASCOE: So what's the reaction been from fans?

SULLIVAN: You know, despite her struggles, there has been so much enthusiasm, and on Friday night, that was, like, really felt as she was just hitting three after three after three in the third quarter. The Mystics, the Washington Mystics, who were the home team in this situation - they don't normally play in this big Capital One Arena. Usually, they play in a small venue that seats about 4,000 people, but they moved this game because of all the interest in Clark and the fever in the WNBA this season. It sold out. Twenty thousand people, more than 20,000 people went. That's more than went to Game 1 of the NBA Finals this past week, just for comparison's purpose.

So the stands are packed, people of all ages. You got kids, adults and women, boys and girls, a lot of them out wearing Caitlin Clark gear. And not all of them were veteran fans of the WNBA, of course. And so I talked to a few people in the crowd. Among them were Jason Smith and his 9-year-old daughter, Autumn, who live in Virginia. They had never watched the WNBA before this year. This was their first ever game in person. And they - you know, Jason told me that they came because of Caitlin Clark.

JASON SMITH: We've been following her for, like, the last two years, and the opportunity came up to see her, so the two of us headed into the city.

SULLIVAN: And I asked his daughter, Autumn, what she likes about Clark.

AUTUMN: Her three-point shots and, like, her really good passes to people.

SULLIVAN: I mean, this is, like, a 9-year-old girl who's like super dialed in, knows Clark's game. The family is watching games together, not just this one night in person but together at home. They said they're following four teams. That's exactly what the league is hoping for, and they're cashing in already on that this season.

RASCOE: Well, that is so cute. But there has been some drama, though, around...

SULLIVAN: Yes.

RASCOE: ...Caitlin Clark...

SULLIVAN: Oh, yeah.

RASCOE: ...This weekend, and there's reporting that she apparently won't be on the roster for Team USA for the Paris Olympics next month. What's going on?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, you know, part of this - this reporting came out this weekend - part of it is that there was a training camp held for the U.S. Olympic team that was held this spring that Caitlin Clark couldn't attend because of March Madness. She was sill in college, still playing in that. And, you know, even if there is one thing that - I think a reaction that a lot of people have had is that even if there is confidence in getting a gold medal without Clark on the team, you do have to wonder, you know, here's this name. She's drawing so many people to the women's games. She's helping to sell out arenas. She's just generating all this enthusiasm and excitement around women's basketball. Like, kind of, why wouldn't you want someone like that to go represent your country?

On the other hand, let's be honest - there's tons of really great players in women's basketball in the U.S. who are reported to be on the roster. That includes A'ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner, several more. Women's basketball hasn't lost a game - the U.S. hasn't lost a game at the Olympics since 1992. So I think we'll see what happens.

RASCOE: NPR's Becky Sullivan, thanks so much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.