By Amy Tennery

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A star-studded draft class headlined by the record-smashing Caitlin Clark is set to rock the WNBA when the season tips off on Tuesday, amid unprecedented interest in the league.

Surging ticket sales saw teams scrambling to move games into larger venues and the league days ago launched a charter flight program for players, pouring in a reported $50 million into the policy over the next two years.

Players and coaches said radical change has arrived for the WNBA, after decades when the men’s “Big Four” have maintained a chokehold on American sport.

“It’s not business as usual anymore. And this has been brewing for a while,” Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve told reporters.

“We’ve been on a wave. But this is like, you know, a bit more of a tsunami.”

Clark and a charismatic cast of fellow rookies that include the Chicago Sky’s Angel Reese and Los Angeles Sparks’ Cameron Brink have been given the lion’s share of the credit.

A record 2.45 million people tuned in to watch Clark go first overall to the Indiana Fever in the WNBA draft, after she toppled the all-time collegiate scoring record at Iowa.

Her college finale against South Carolina drew the biggest TV audience for a basketball game in the U.S. – men’s or women’s, at any level of the sport – since 2019.

And Clark became sportswear manufacturer Fanatics’ best-selling draft pick in company history, with brands lining up to do business with the six-foot guard.

“Nobody’s been under a stronger spotlight, a bigger microscope in the women’s game, probably in the history of the game, than Caitlin Clark was. And she continually lived up to the moment,” said Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo, an ESPN analyst who played in the league beginning in its 1997 inaugural year.

“She seems to be a player who’s a bit unfazed by what we would look at as pressure or expectation.”

‘UNPRECEDENTED’

The accelerated interest has not come as a surprise to veteran players.

The league enjoyed its most-watched season in more than two decades last year, buoyed by the popularity of the two “superteams”, the New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces.

“We could feel that last season,” MVP Breanna Stewart told reporters. “This tipping point and this movement has been a long time coming.”

Las Vegas Aces, the wildly popular champions, are moving their July 2 game against Clark’s Fever from their home at Michelob Ultra Arena to a larger venue, the 18,000-capacity T-Mobile Arena.

The Los Angeles Sparks originally planned to play their first five home games at Long Beach State due to renovations at Crypto.com Arena. They moved a trio of contests – including a May 24 meeting with the Fever – from the collegiate facility back to the arena they share with the NBA’s Lakers.

“Women’s basketball is experiencing unprecedented viewership and attendance numbers so moving these games back to Crypto.com Arena provides us the ability to have more fans in the stands,” Sparks President Christine Monjer said in a statement.

Sales for WNBA games were nearly double from last season on StubHub, following a growth trend over several years. The Fever play in nine of the 10 best-selling games this season on the ticket resale platform.

Speaking to the throngs of reporters who tuned in for a pre-season press conference, Clark said she was ready to embrace the moment.

“This is what the league and the players in this league have deserved for a really long time,” said Clark.

The Indiana Fever begin their season on the road on Tuesday against the Connecticut Sun.

(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Toby Davis)



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