Growing the game is Caitlin Clark's greatest legacy

Caitlin Clark's legacy stretches far beyond the record books (1:57)

Caitlin Clark broke the NCAA Division I scoring record and had unprecedented success at Iowa, but growing the game of basketball might be her greatest legacy. (1:57)

CLEVELAND -- Let's talk about Caitlin Clark.

I mean, everybody is talking about her. Has been for months.

People have been debating whether she's the GOAT. Sports fans have been arguing whether she's the best player of her generation. Analysts, like me, have been pontificating that the Iowa Hawkeyes senior guard is the best offensive player to come around in decades.

But one fact is beyond debate: Caitlin Clark has been a singular force who has grown the women's game in ways no college player ever has before.

We've never seen a player sell tickets like Clark, both at home and on the road. We've never seen a player drive ratings like she has. We've never had a player bring this many eyeballs to women's college basketball.

Caitlin Clark has captivated the broader sports fan. The casual sports fan. Even the non-sports fan.

People simply love watching her play.

She plays the game differently. We've never had a player who consistently takes and makes logos 3s. A player who can space the floor like this and then manipulate defenders and pass with accuracy and velocity. She's one of the best passers the women's game has ever seen.

And yes, she broke dozens of records. She scored 3,951 points in her career, including 30 on Sunday when Iowa lost 87-75 in the national championship game. She averaged 31.6 points per game her senior year, and 28.4 points for her career. She passed scoring legends like Pete Maravich and Lynette Woodard.

Those numbers and records are incredible. They might even be insurmountable. But Clark's legacy stretches far beyond the record books.

She shined a spotlight on women's basketball that was greater than any we've ever seen. A record 9.9 million viewers tuned in to watch LSU's win over Iowa in the 2023 national championship game. And on Monday, Iowa's 94-87 victory over LSU in the Elite Eight of averaged 12.3 million viewers, the most watched women's college basketball game in history and one of the most-viewed games in any sport other than NFL football over the past year.

In the regular season, seven different television networks and streaming platforms recorded their highest-rated women's college games ever when Iowa played on their air.

Iowa sold out all of its home games this year and all but two on the road. Ticket prices for Iowa's regular-season home game against Ohio State were the highest on record for a women's basketball game.

The beauty is, people aren't just watching Iowa. Per the NCAA, 292,456 fans attended women's first- and second-round games of this year's NCAA tournament, an increase of 60,779 fans from 2023. Just five years ago, per NCAA records, 274,873 fans attended the entire 2019 women's NCAA tournament.

Does that happen without the Caitlin Clark effect? Probably not.

Who knows where it goes from here. Is this the beginning of a consistent uptick in women's college basketball popularity? Is it a unique phenomenon that will follow her to the WNBA but won't continue in college after Clark moves on? We don't know.

But this is an undeniable point in the evolution of the popularity of women's basketball.

While the women's game has had great teams and players for several decades, no player before Clark has had the kind of impact on the number of people watching.

If you're a women's basketball fan, you have to recognize and appreciate what she has done to grow the sport.

Clark's college career came to an end Sunday. She didn't win an NCAA championship.

But no player has done more to elevate the popularity of the women's game than Caitlin Clark.