Why many NCAA women’s basketball stars didn’t grow up watching the game

By | March 29, 2024

ALBANY, N.Y. – One of Hannah Hidalgo’s first memories of women’s basketball came in fifth grade. There was no special team involved, no phenomenal player or competition worthy of an instant classic.

It was the way people talked about it, hated it and openly bashed it. It made Notre Dame’s freshman star not want to watch.

“When you heard all that noise as a child, you think you kind of believe it [that] it’s not interesting,” Hidalgo told Yahoo Sports ahead of the team’s first training session at the super-regional ground. “But when you really look at it, you see how much talent the women have, how they can make moves and how they can reach the finish line. [and] shooting from half way. You see Caitlin Clark pull the ball from almost half court. It’s just great to see that now.”

Hidalgo didn’t start watching until two seasons ago, when she was already deep in her own college recruiting and Aari McDonald led Arizona to the 2021 national championship game. The high schooler was impressed by the smaller point guard’s ability and smarts to shoot. over bigger defenders. She could identify with it. Both are listed at 5-foot-6.

It’s quite common to hear that even female basketball players grew up without seeing the game they wanted to play at the highest level. Games were not available on readily available TV channels, players were not discussed on talk shows, and the entire ideology of March Madness almost completely ignored women. It was hard to be a fan of the women’s game.

Notre Dame's Hannah Hidalgo celebrates an Irish lead during their win over Ole Miss on March 25.  (Michael Hickey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

But now it’s easier than ever before, and the spotlight, including Naismith finalist Hidalgo, has never been brighter. What were dismissive comments have turned into comments about how there are more stars and excitement on the women’s side than the men’s side. The rise in the talent level is helping, something South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley has seen boom since 2019.

“I think basketball is much better from then to now,” Staley said. “In that short time, players are better. Freshmen are better because they have seen women play at the top of their game, making them much better prepared for situations like [the Sweet 16].”

Fan after fan, people are joining the bandwagon as the momentum soars to new viewership and attendance heights. Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck, a 28-year coaching veteran, said she always enjoyed helping people who don’t respect the sport learn to do so.

His approach is the same as that used by many in women’s sports: go to one game. Give it a chance. But be warned, he tells people, “You’ll get hooked and you won’t stop coming.”

“Now that so much more publicity is being given to our sport – absolutely deserved, but finally given – everyone is talking about our sport. Everyone,” Rueck said. “People say, ‘I’d rather watch women’s basketball than men’s basketball.’ How many times have I heard that during my career? A lot of. And it’s usually from men who are shocked at how much they enjoy it. That has been a secret passion of mine, which is no longer a secret and which I simply love.”

MiLaysia Fulwiley’s first foray into watching women’s basketball was in high school when a “Hello Newmans” episode of Overtime appeared on her YouTube watch list. The episodes lasted about 10-15 minutes and focused on the lives of siblings Julian and Jaden Newman, both of whom showed promise in high school.

South Carolina's MiLaysia Fulwiley celebrates a three-pointer during her team's win over North Carolina.  (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)South Carolina's MiLaysia Fulwiley celebrates a three-pointer during her team's win over North Carolina.  (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Fulwiley, a freshman who stands out at No. 1 overall seed South Carolina, said it may sound crazy that this was her first memory of watching women’s hoops. But in the age of social media, it’s normal to come across something interesting. To then continue to be offered similar things. That’s why Fulwiley didn’t look to the WNBA until A’ja Wilson, a Gamecocks champion and native of Columbia, South Carolina, was drafted.

“It wasn’t promoted,” Fulwiley said. “I haven’t really seen it on my YouTube or anything. It didn’t appear in my recommendations, and I searched for basketball all the time. Women never showed up. And if it was women, it was the most embarrassing videos, things like that.

Now it’s all over her feeds, along with videos of young boys and girls waiting for autographs from the likes of Caitlin Clark, JuJu Watkins, Paige Bueckers and other national stars. It creates generational fandom that has historically been reserved for men’s sports, with a parent passing on the love of a team to a child.

Oregon State forward Raegan Beers was fortunate enough to experience this. Her earliest memory of women’s basketball came about this time seven years ago thanks to her mother, Kari.

“We had two TVs and two computers open in our living room playing multiple different games all day with March Madness,” Beers told Yahoo Sports. “And that’s the earliest memory I have is just laying on the couch and seeing so many screens showing different March Madness games.”

That was when ESPN was still airing full coverage of the first weekend. It promised to broadcast every game on linear TV in 2021, when Hidalgo started looking. Multiple games aired on ABC last weekend with 5 million viewers for Clark’s final home game with Iowa and 2 million for both UConn-Syracuse and LSU-Middle Tennessee.

South Carolina junior Sania Feagin said if women’s basketball games and discussions were on TV when she was growing up, she definitely would have watched.

“Because, I mean, why wouldn’t I want more people to look at me?”

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