From Court to Culture: How The “Caitlin Clark Effect” Identifies Sports Marketing Strategies for Gen Z Audiences

If we’ve learned anything about ‘Clarkonomics’ or ‘The Clark Effect’, it’s how Gen Z audiences don’t need traditional ‘attracting’ methods, and modern athletes are carving out big business by themselves.

By Sophie Marsh, Director, Sport UNLIMITED (part of Accenture Song)

Basketball has been steadily growing this side of the pond, largely fuelled by the NBA’s own international strategy, and the recent changes to allow the teams to be more international in their commercial outlook. In recent weeks and months, Caitlin Clark – the 22-year old point guard from Iowa – has further transcended these geographical boundaries thanks to her unrivalled talent on the court and rising stardom stateside. Consequently, women’s collegiate basketball has gained unprecedented recognition across global sports media.

However, is this unprecedented at all?

Clark’s stratospheric rise stateside has coincided with an increased interest in basketball among a younger, Gen Z audience. EY’s sports engagement index found basketball to be the fourth most popular sport among Gen Z audiences in the UK, placing behind only football, boxing, and Formula 1. Basketball is often considered a highly culturally relevant sport, with its unique ability to transcend music, fashion, and modern culture – trends which are often led by younger audiences. This increased engagement with basketball, as well as an inherent appreciation for a generational talent like Clark, has created a ‘perfect storm’, within which her stardom has been able to rise. Some headline stats:

  • Bringing new fans to the game – Clark has made women’s basketball a must-see event, boosting ticket sales and broadcast viewership. A record 18.9m sized audience watched her final college appearance for Iowa in the National Championship Game.
  • Boosting the value of the sport – In 2024, the NCAA signed a TV contract with ESPN that valued the women’s tournament at $65m annually, more than 10 times the previous rate.
  • Economic impact – Average ticket prices for Clark’s new team (Fever) have rocketed from $60 to $300 in anticipation of her debut season.
  • Transcending sport, entertainment, and pop culture – Clark was the first player to be dressed by Prada for either the NBA or WNBA draft selection and has since signed a $28 million shoe deal with Nike.

It would be naïve to suggest that Clarke has been the sole driver behind the figures mentioned above. However, given the fact that global brands like Prada, Nike, and Wilson have all rushed to collaborate with the athlete, we can’t ignore the notion that Clark has had a definitive role in the changing landscape of the sport.

While the ‘Caitlin Clark Effect’ is evident, the 22-year-old isn’t the first athlete to have a personal brand that extends beyond both her team and her craft. For years, we’ve seen the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar market themselves as stars in their own right. As well as being the best on the field of play, they’ve also grown a significant social media following, captivated a highly engaged audience and curated a level of influence that has transcended the worlds of sport, culture and entertainment.

Clark, however, is unique in that her stardom rose despite not yet being a professional athlete on a global stage, and despite the fact that women’s sports still receive less funding, broadcasting rights and typically lower levels of engagement than our male counterparts.

However, is ‘despite’ the wrong word?

Perhaps, in fact, Clark is representing the new age of the female athlete. Clark’s stardom has risen because she is participating in a sport that connects on a more authentic, personal level with fans in both the UK and across the pond. Which provides the perfect platform for her unique attributes; her unbelievable skillset that has NBA stars singing her praises, she wins games at the death in exciting ways and breaks 50 years old records held previously by male players.  Then there is the narrative around her, a college choice to stay close to home, and achieving what she has at a non-traditional 6ft in height make her relatable to aspiring young athletes. And then there are the rivalries, this is sport after all…

Clark isn’t the only one reaping the benefits of the growing popularity of women’s basketball. Her media-fuelled rival, Chicago Sky’s Angel Reese made her Met Gala debut this year, joining other top sports stars like F1’s Lewis Hamilton, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, and golf’s Nelly Korda at ‘the’ fashion event of the year. Additionally, Kim Kardashian’s underwear brand SKIMS recently unveiled a star-studded campaign to celebrate its new partnership with the WNBA. In the long term, the whole WNBA could benefit from Clark’s success, as her WNBA salary has sparked fresh debate around earnings for female athletes in comparison to their male counterparts.

For sports marketeers, the focus now is on how we can support brands to work authentically with these growing stars, harnessing the power of the individual personalities, unique selling points, and the opportunity that women’s sport presents. All of which will allow brands to connect on a genuine and deeper level with their fans, and their wider sporting audiences.