Why many NCAA women’s basketball stars didn’t grow up watching the game


ALBANY, N.Y. — One of Hannah Hidalgo’s first memories of women’s basketball came in the fifth grade. It didn’t involve a special team or a phenomenal player or a competition worthy of an instant classic.

It was how people talked down about it, hated on it and bashed it openly. It made Notre Dame’s freshman star not want to watch.

“Hearing all that noise as a kid, you think you kind of believe it [that] it’s not interesting,” Hidalgo told Yahoo Sports ahead of the team’s first practice at the super-regional site. “But then when you really start to watch it, you see how much talent the women have, how they’re able to make moves and how they’re able to finish [and] shoot from halfcourt. You see Caitlin Clark pulling the ball from almost halfcourt. Kind of seeing that now is just big.”

Hidalgo didn’t start watching until two seasons ago, when she was already deep into her own college recruitment and Aari McDonald led Arizona to the national championship game in 2021. The high school junior was impressed with the smaller point guard’s abilities and smarts to shoot over taller defenders. She could relate. Both are listed at 5-foot-6.

It’s rather common to hear that even women’s basketball players grew up without watching the game they aspired to play at the highest level. Games weren’t on easily available TV channels, players weren’t discussed on talk shows and the entire ideology of March Madness ignored women almost entirely. It was difficult to be a fan of the women’s game.

Notre Dame's Hannah Hidalgo celebrates an Irish lead during their win over Ole Miss on March 25. (Michael Hickey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)Notre Dame's Hannah Hidalgo celebrates an Irish lead during their win over Ole Miss on March 25. (Michael Hickey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

But now it’s easier than ever before, and the spotlight, which includes Naismith finalist Hidalgo, has never been brighter. What were dismissive comments have morphed into ones about how there are more stars and excitement on the women’s side than the men’s. The talent level’s ascension helps, which is something South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley has seen take off since 2019.

“I think basketball from then until now is much better,” Staley said. “In that short period of time, players are better. Freshmen are better because they’ve seen women play at the top of their games, so they come in much better prepared for situations like [the Sweet 16].”

Fan by fan, people are joining the bandwagon as momentum carries to new viewership and attendance heights. Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck, a 28-year coaching veteran, said she’s always enjoyed helping those who don’t respect the sport to learn to do so.

His approach is the same used by many in women’s sports: go to one game. Give it a chance. But be warned, he tells people, “You’re going to get hooked and you won’t stop coming.”

“With so much more publicity given to our sport — absolutely earned, but finally given — everybody is talking about our sport. Everybody,” Rueck said. “People say, ‘I love watching women’s basketball more than men’s.’ How many times I’ve heard that over my career? A lot. And it’s from usually men who are shocked at how much they enjoy it. That has been a secret passion of mine that’s not a secret any longer that I just love.”

MiLaysia Fulwiley’s first foray into watching women’s basketball was in middle school when a “Hello Newmans” episode from Overtime popped up on her YouTube viewing list. The episodes ran about 10-15 minutes long and featured the lives of siblings Julian and Jaden Newman, both of whom were high school prospects.

South Carolina's MiLaysia Fulwiley celebrates a 3-pointer during her team's win over North Carolina. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)South Carolina's MiLaysia Fulwiley celebrates a 3-pointer during her team's win over North Carolina. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Fulwiley, a freshman standout for No. 1 overall seed South Carolina, said it might sound crazy that was her first women’s hoops viewing memory. But in the social media era, it’s typical to stumble upon something of interest. Then, to keep being offered similar things. It’s why Fulwiley didn’t watch the WNBA until A’ja Wilson, a Gamecocks champion and Columbia, South Carolina, native, was drafted.

“It wasn’t promoted,” Fulwiley said. “I didn’t really see it on my YouTube or nothing. It didn’t pop up in my recommendations, and I used to search basketball all the time. Women’s never popped up. And if it was women’s it was like, most embarrassing videos, stuff like that.”

Now it’s all over her feeds, as are videos of young boys and girls waiting for autographs from the likes of Caitlin Clark, JuJu Watkins, Paige Bueckers and other national stars. It is creating generational fandom historically reserved for men’s sports where a parent passes down a love of a team to a child.

Oregon State forward Raegan Beers was fortunate to experience it. Her earliest memory of women’s basketball came around this time seven years ago because of her mom, Kari.

“We had two TVs and two computers open in our living room that were just playing multiple different games all day long with March Madness,” Beers told Yahoo Sports. “And so that’s the earliest memory I have, was staying on the couch and seeing so many screens with different March Madness games.”

That was when ESPN still aired first-weekend wrap-around coverage. It committed to airing each and every game on linear TV in 2021, when Hidalgo began watching. Last weekend, it aired multiple games on ABC to the tune of 5 million viewers for Clark’s last home game with Iowa and 2 million for each of UConn-Syracuse and LSU-Middle Tennessee.

South Carolina junior Sania Feagin said if women’s basketball games and discussion were on TV when she was growing up, she would have definitely watched.

“Because, I mean, why wouldn’t I want more people watching me?”

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