Women’s college basketball is in the midst of a renaissance, fueled by last spring’s national championship game between Caitlin Clark’s University of Iowa squad and Baltimore native Angel Reese’s LSU Tigers.
The excitement was not limited to the semifinals and the title game, with 357,542 fans in attendance for the entirety of the tournament, obliterating the previous NCAA women’s tournament record.
The championship game saw an increase in television viewership of 103%, with an average of 9.9 million viewers, making it the most-viewed game in the history of women’s basketball. To put that number into perspective, more people tuned in to watch LSU vs. Iowa than any Stanley Cup game since 1973.
And one of the biggest reasons for that resurgence is Reese, the most outstanding player of the 2023 Final Four, who will be returning to Baltimore on Wednesday to play in front of a sellout crowd at Coppin State.
“It’s amazing to see the popularity and the level of celebrity Angel has attained over the past year,” said Joy Bettis, an assistant girls basketball coach at Eastern Tech in Essex, as she sat with friends watching the Celtics play the Cavaliers on Thursday evening between bar hopping along 36th Street in Hampden. “And the excitement of her returning to Baltimore to play in front of the home crowd is palpable. She’s been on my radar since she was a student at St. Frances and the University of Maryland after that, before she transferred to LSU.
“Watching the season she had last year reignited my passion for the game and actually inspired me to get back into coaching. For people who are fans of the women’s game, getting a chance to see Angel play up close and personal at home is a very big deal.”
After winning the national championship, Reese returned home to a hero’s welcome. After winning an ESPY for the best breakthrough athlete, she had the outdoor basketball court at the Scotts Branch Recreation Activity Center named in her honor. She raised money for scholarships at St. Frances at a DTLR event, was honored by Mayor Brandon Scott at City Hall and threw out the first pitch at an Orioles game.
She signed an endorsement deal with Reebok, in what the brand said was a new strategy to reclaim its spot near the top of sports and pop culture, as it enjoyed when Allen Iverson was at the apex of his marketing powers.
Unfortunately, with her surge in popularity and the hometown folks clamoring to see her play in person, the normal $15 general admission ticket is being sold for $72 to $170 on Vivid Seats. On SeatGeek, LSU-Coppin tickets are selling for $72-$174.
“I’m not into the WNBA, but watching the tournament last year made me appreciate the women’s college game,” Daniel Jacob said as he sat with Bettis on Thursday evening. “The excitement was comparable to a Ravens playoff game. When I found out that LSU was coming to Baltimore, I was looking forward to bringing my daughter to the game, but I was shocked at the prices that are being charged. I figured I’d pay $30 for two tickets, get some hot dogs and chicken tenders and have a good time watching some great players. But $170 per ticket? I’m not going to be able to swing that.”
Bettis has also been priced out, but she understands the economic factors at play and will continue to root for Reese from a distance.
“Angel is one of the most popular, marketable and in-demand athletes in the country right now,” Bettis said. “I’m glad that whatever issues she was going through in the locker room that caused her to be suspended for a few games have been resolved. As a former player and now as a coach, I know that things happen within the team dynamic behind closed doors. She might be a celebrity with a healthy [name, image and likeness] portfolio, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that this is new terrain for her. She’s still a young person in her formative stages.
“The awesome thing is that women’s college basketball is in the best shape it’s ever been in and it’s only going to grow from here,” Bettis continued. “With players like Angel Reese, Caitlin Clark, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and USC’s freshman sensation, JuJu Watkins, the future of the college game is beyond bright.”