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As women’s basketball thrills record audiences, a Canadian icon hopes it’s more than a ‘moment’ | CBC News



If anybody deserves to celebrate the surge of excitement hovering over women’s basketball, it’s Lisa Thomaidis, an iconic part of basketball history both in Canada and abroad.

During her current tenure as head coach for the University of Saskatchewan women’s basketball team, the program has been a perennial power, capturing multiple national championships. She also led the Canadian national team for more than a decade and recently led Germany to that country’s first ever Olympic berth.

She also starred as a player.

Thomaidis says this “moment” the women’s game is having should be savoured, but reminds it comes after decades of hard work. 

“The whole term, moment, I don’t like that because it refers to something that’s fleeting. That kind of comes and goes and it’s just for this, you know, period of time,” Thomaidis told CBC.

‘No shortage of talent’

“I think for those of us who’ve been in women’s basketball, you recognize this for many years that this has been going on, there’s been no shortage of talent or exciting personalities or dynamic teams or players.”

WATCH | March Madness women’s games seeing bigger audiences than the men’s tournament: 

March Madness women’s games draw unprecedented audiences

Rising basketball stars like Caitlin Clark and Canada’s Aaliyah Edwards are bringing fresh audiences and momentum to NCAA women’s college basketball as games are seeing bigger audiences than the men’s tournament, or even any Major League Baseball game last season.

What has changed is the availability and interest in the women’s game, especially the college game south of the border. (Thomaidis points out only a handful of Canadian university games are televised.) 

The women’s edition of the annual NCAA March Madness tournament has generated unprecedented interest.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we had to fight or try to find a TV station that would play a women’s game, ” Thomaidis said. This year, You didn’t have to hunt for it. It was just there.”

Thomaidis was one of more than 12.3 million people watching the tournament’s quarterfinal between Louisiana State University (LSU) and Iowa.

More people watched the game than any game of the men’s tournament. It even had more viewers than any Major League Baseball game last year. In the NBA, only Game 5 of last year’s Finals attracted more eyeballs.

It received the same coverage often reserved for premier men’s events. The on-court play was analyzed, coaching decisions scrutinized — it was the major content filler on national and local sport radio shows.

A basketball player dribbles the ball with one hand while pointing with the other.
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, seen above in February, is arguably one of the most recognized figures in the women’s game. (Matthew Putney/The Associated Press)

The stars of the game were LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, arguably the two most recognized figures in the women’s game — part of a growing roster of marketable young stars.

Clark’s star has shone brightest, thanks to an unparalleled shooting ability that has helped her smash multiple records. Clark has been so widely covered that she is recognized far beyond the basketball court.

“As a competitor and being involved in this moment, it’s hard for you to wrap your head around. When you step on the court and you’re playing for 40 minutes you’re not thinking: Oh, my gosh, there’s 12 million-plus people watching this game at home,” Clark said.

“I think that really puts into perspective exactly where women’s basketball is going and the type of excitement around our game.”

Product has always been there

Clark echoes Thomaidis’s point about women’s basketball getting so much recognition  — it’s about time.

“It’s not surprising that everybody’s wanting to talk about it right now. But the product has always been there,” Clark told dozens of reporters ahead of the tournament’s semifinal game.

“It doesn’t get old seeing so many people talk about women’s basketball. For me, that’s the greatest thing. I know it will only continue to grow more.”

A basketball player with the ball leaps at the basket while an opponent tries to block her shot.
UConn Huskies forward Aaliyah Edwards from Kingston, Ont., puts up a shot during the second half against the USC Trojans during a March Madness game on Monday. (Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

Another of the game’s big stars is Aaliyah Edwards from Kingston, Ont. Projected to be a Top 5 pick in the upcoming WNBA draft, Edwards is a key player at the University of Connecticut, the team slated to play Clark’s Iowa on Friday evening.

“I’m just grateful for the platform that I’ve been given, playing at an elite school like UConn, because not only it’s opened doors for me and opportunities for me, but also opportunities for those upcoming in Canada,” Edwards said.

“I think we’re also just growing women’s basketball in general. We’re not only a hockey country, we’re trying to be a basketball country as well. So a lot of love up north, and I appreciate all of you.”

Among some basketball lifers, there is a belief the popularity enjoyed by players like Edwards, Clark and Reese will extend to the pro game, especially the WNBA, which has steadily grown, but never come close to the interest in the NBA, a league which was revitalized by and sustained itself around collegiate stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.

WATCH | Caitlin Clark breaks NCAA scoring record:

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark becomes NCAA basketball’s all-time leading scorer

Already the NCAA women’s leading scorer, Clark passes Pete Maravich to become the Division I scoring leader.

Without the same excitement generated by such players, the WNBA hasn’t benefited from fans wanting to follow them from college to the professional level, according to Geno Aurienma, the Hall of Fame University of Connecticut coach and one of the winningest in the history of the game.

“Hopefully this will change that narrative. The WNBA, I don’t think, has done a great enough job of marketing their individual stars, for whatever reason, because there’s been a lot of them,” he said.

Wider audience

Savanna Hamilton played university basketball at Toronto’s Metropolitan University and has since transitioned to broadcasting, where she works as the sideline reporter for Sportsnet’s Raptors broadcasts.

Hamilton points to the longstanding debate around whether a large sustainable television audience was possible for women’s sports. Hamilton says the success of the NCAA, but also women’s soccer and the PWHL — which has had steady television ratings including millions for the league’s inaugural game — indicate a shifting landscape.

“We’re in a social media era where you can choose not to watch women’s basketball, maybe it’s not available on TV, but on social media, there will be clips, there’ll be the voices of the athletes, there’ll be media personalities covering the sport, and everybody kind of wants to know what the hype is about,” Hamilton told CBC.

Hamilton says it means a wider audience, including more young girls now exploring playing a sport at a recreational or competitive level.

“Before it felt like out of sight, out of mind, because they weren’t even visible to you, so you didn’t even know they existed,” Hamilton said. “Now these little girls are growing up being like, oh, I want to be just like: insert female athlete name here.”

A woman in a blue-collared shirt speaks to basketball players.
University of Saskatchewan Huskies head coach Thomaidis was named coach of the year in March. (Brayden Elliott)

Thomaidis knows nothing can be taken for granted, or risk this becoming a “moment.” Nobody knows better than her that for women’s basketball the hard work must continue to further expose and grow the game.

 “You can’t be what you can’t see, but you also can’t support what you can’t see and until it’s [more] out there and available, we’re going to be stuck where we are right now,” she said.

“I really hope that this is an impetus for things to continue to improve and to explode on the Canadian scene.”

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