Caitlin Clark Excluded from U.S. Olympic Basketball Team: Impact on Viewership Trends

Caitlin Clark: A Star Rising Amid Olympic Controversy

by Faruk Imamovic
Caitlin Clark Excluded from U.S. Olympic Basketball Team: Impact on Viewership Trends
© Getty Images/Brian Fluharty

Caitlin Clark has rapidly become a central figure in the world of women's basketball, captivating fans and driving conversations with her exceptional talent and charismatic presence. Her influence extends far beyond the court, significantly boosting attendance at games, generating substantial social media buzz, and drawing in television audiences in record numbers. For instance, her remarkable performance in the NCAA women’s national championship game in April drew 18.9 million viewers, underscoring her role as a transformative force in the sport. However, her recent exclusion from the U.S. Olympic basketball team has sparked widespread debate, bringing attention to the complexities of team selection and the broader impact of her presence on the game's popularity and growth.

Clark's Exclusion from the U.S. Olympic Team

The latest debate surrounding Clark is her exclusion from the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Having covered women’s college basketball for more than a decade at Sports Illustrated, I believe this decision is justified from a basketball standpoint. USA Basketball’s primary goal is to win, and there are currently better American perimeter players, such as Arike Ogunbowale, who I would have selected over both Clark and Diana Taurasi, who did make the team. Additionally, Kayla McBride's current form places her ahead of Clark in my opinion. I would also have picked Dearica Hamby over Brittney Griner. Reasonable people can disagree on these selections, and that's part of the ongoing discussion.

Clark herself has handled the situation with grace and perspective, demonstrating media savvy and maturity beyond her years. When asked about not being picked for Team USA, she responded, “No disappointment. I think it just gives you something to work for. That’s a dream. Hopefully one day I can be there. I think it’s just a little more motivation. You remember that.”

Caitlin Clark: A Star Rising Amid Olympic Controversy
Caitlin Clark: A Star Rising Amid Olympic Controversy© Getty Images/Greg Fiume

The Debate Over Viewership and Marketing

A prevalent opinion is that having Clark in Paris would boost viewership and further the growth of women’s basketball. However, looking at the historical viewership data for women’s basketball at the Olympics, it's clear that substantial audiences have existed long before Clark emerged on the scene.

Here are the average viewership numbers for the last four women’s basketball gold-medal games:

  • 2021 (Tokyo): 7.9 million viewers (including out-of-home measurement, a change Nielsen made in 2020)
  • 2016 (Rio): 8.1 million viewers
  • 2012 (London): 10.2 million viewers
  • 2008 (Beijing): 5.9 million viewers

The 2021 women’s gold-medal game between Team USA and Japan, despite tipping off at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC during the COVID-19 pandemic, drew nearly 8 million viewers. The 2016 U.S. win over Spain, which tipped at 2:30 p.m. ET on a Saturday, had over 8 million viewers. The all-time Olympic women’s basketball viewership record was set in 1996, with the U.S. defeating Brazil in Atlanta, averaging 23.4 million viewers during prime time.

The Committee's Focus on Merit

Multiple truths can coexist in today’s polarized climate. Clark would undoubtedly boost viewership in Paris; her college and WNBA game data confirms this. There is a legitimate argument that women’s basketball would benefit from her presence at the Olympics. Molly Solomon, NBC’s executive producer and president of their Olympics production, acknowledged this while highlighting the depth of talent in the WNBA.

“Her impact on viewership would be undeniable and maybe even historic,” Solomon said. “But I do think it speaks so much to the depth of the WNBA that it’s a question whether she’s going to make the roster. I think it’d be amazing if she could. But I really feel like NBC has been lifting up women’s Olympic basketball for a long time. We’ve always put the game on really high-profile platforms, and we’re going to do the same thing here.”

Solomon continued, “When people ask me about the most fascinating storylines for these Games, the women’s team is going for its eighth straight gold medal. That’s unprecedented in any Olympic sport. They haven’t lost a game since 1992. It’s amazing, that streak. So adding Caitlin to that team would create even more intrigue, just getting more people to realize the greatness of this team.”

The U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team has been in a league of its own — undefeated in Olympic play since 1996. The interest and viewership have consistently been strong, even before Clark’s arrival. The argument that few watched before her is both absurd and inaccurate.

However, the focus here isn’t solely on viewership and marketing; it’s about merit. The selection committee, comprising women's basketball icons like Dawn Staley, Seimone Augustus, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Jennifer Rizzotti, Atlanta Dream general manager Dan Padover, and WNBA head of league operations Bethany Donaphin, is tasked with assembling a team that can win. Previous committees have made questionable decisions, such as the omission of Candace Parker in 2016, but their goal remains clear: to field the best team possible.

While some might argue that the U.S. would win regardless of who the 12th player is, this perspective doesn’t necessarily justify altering the team’s composition. Coach Cheryl Reeve's responsibility is to secure victory, and the current team selections reflect that mission. People are going to watch this team in Paris, as historical trends indicate.