$1,000 floor seats and sellout crowds: Inside the Caitlin Clark road show

EVANSTON, Ill. — At 6 a.m. on Jan. 31, Madisyn Bellin woke up, took a quick shower, put on her Caitlin Clark jersey and left her home in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, bound for Northwestern University and the chance to see her favorite basketball player.

Along with her mother, brother and boyfriend, Bellin pulled up to Welsh Ryan Arena at around 10 a.m., nine hours before Iowa and Northwestern would tip off. No other fans would arrive until around 2 p.m., according to Bellin’s mother, Kari Supple, who packed plenty of snacks for the long wait in the cold. Northwestern, like many schools, operates its women’s college hoops games with mostly general admission seating, so being early matters.

“My goal was to make sure my kids had the best experience,” Supple said.

When the doors opened at 5:30 p.m., they secured spots in the first row of the corner, next to the visitors tunnel. Supple, whose sister played softball at Northwestern, consulted her contacts there to scout out the best spot to see Clark, the Iowa superstar who has captivated her daughter and so many others.

Bellin, who turned 14 last week, brought a sign that read, “IT’S MY BIRTHDAY ALL I WANT IS TO MEET CAITLIN CLARK,” with Clark’s No. 22 all over it.

“I love how she is on and off the court, and how she treats people,” said Bellin, who plays for her eighth-grade team and an AAU squad. “And it’s crazy how far she can shoot from.”

Clark’s popularity surged during the 2022-23 campaign, when she won national player of the year honors and helped Iowa to its first NCAA championship game. Her games this season have brought sellouts for every home and away game, long lines outside arenas that seat using general admission, spikes in revenue and extraordinary attention to every arena the Hawkeyes visit. Everyone wants a glimpse of the 22-year-old as she closes in on the women’s NCAA scoring record and as No. 2 Iowa prepares for another deep NCAA tournament run.

According to Vivid Seats, Iowa fans are traveling 34% farther to see Clark and her teammates this season than last. The average ticket price for Iowa’s road games (past and upcoming) is $107.75, and fans have traveled an average of 137.7 miles to see the Hawkeyes away from Iowa City. Iowa has drawn an average of 10,953 fans to its road contests, which continue on Sunday at Nebraska. No other Big Ten team has averaged more than 8,288 fans at its away games (Indiana), and the average attendance when conference teams have appeared on the road is 5,227.

Several Big Ten schools said they have increased arena staff for Iowa games or matched what they use for sellouts on the men’s basketball side. Purdue put up stanchions to keep some distance between Iowa’s bus and the large crowd that had gathered to see Clark as she entered and exited Mackey Arena.

“It’s a moment in time,” Iowa athletic director Beth Goetz told ESPN, while standing near the tunnel by the Iowa locker room before the Jan. 31 tilt at Northwestern and as fans craned their necks to see Clark. “For anybody who’s got a star, at home, you would expect for that to develop and grow. But to now see it out on the road, to be selling out arenas, to see people lined up hours before, it’s amazing.”

IOWA COACH LISA BLUDER has seen the look. When Iowa’s bus pulls up to road arenas or hotels and those who have gathered to greet Clark see her for the first time, their eyes and mouths contort.

“It’s like the ‘Home Alone’ face,” Bluder told ESPN, referring to actor Macaulay Culkin’s iconic pose. “Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s Caitlin Clark!’ It’s fun to see, it really is.”

Clark’s rock star status has led fans to do more and pay more to watch her perform. When Clark and the Hawkeyes come to town, everything spikes.

Iowa’s first appearance away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena this season — against Virginia Tech on Nov. 9 in Charlotte, North Carolina — drew 15,196 to the Spectrum Center, which game organizers said marked the largest-ever crowd for a women’s game in the state. Three days later, Clark made the shorter trip to Northern Iowa, where she broke Iowa’s career scoring record before the first sellout crowd for a women’s game at the McLeod Center.

After helping set an attendance record at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida and assisting in selling out Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum, Clark began her Big Ten tour with more massive crowds. On Jan. 5 at Rutgers, fans gathered 90 minutes before doors opened at Jersey Mike’s Arena. Rutgers had its first advanced sellout for a women’s game since 2006 and its first sellout not against 11-time national champion UConn.

“A lot of those people are coming because they want to see a top-five team play and they want to help the home team get an upset, but I do think a lot of them are coming to see Caitlin and the Hawks play,” Bluder said. “It’s evident by the signs we see: ‘I drove from Canada to see Caitlin Clark.’ I saw signs from Maine [at Rutgers]. They don’t get a chance to see her play live unless we’re on the East Coast, so we’ve got a lot more new fans out there.

“They want to see us play in person, so they go on the road.”

On Jan. 10, Purdue recorded its fourth sellout for a women’s basketball game, as an announced crowd of 14,876 packed into Mackey Arena to see Clark and Iowa. Purdue generated $106,257 in ticket sales for the game, nearly five times more than its average of $21,920. The school made $36,500 in concessions against Iowa, well above its average of $11,500.

Even schools with strong teams have benefited from the mania Clark and Iowa generate. Ohio State, ranked No. 8, opened seating in the upper bowl of the Schottenstein Center for the Iowa game and drew a sellout crowd of 18,660 — a program record and the largest attendance for an indoor women’s game this season — for Iowa’s visit on Jan. 21. (An October exhibition game between Iowa and DePaul at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City drew 55,646 fans, a women’s basketball single-game attendance record.)

“It shows what people are willing to give to watch our team play,” Clark said. I always want to take time and sign a couple autographs after and try to play the best I can and smile, have fun, because not many people (1) get the chance to come see us play, and (2) a lot of people are spending a lot of time, money and resources to have these opportunities that hopefully will give them memories for the rest of their lives.

Brian Eshoo and his daughters, Natalie and Audrey, were among those who made the 100-plus-mile drive to Purdue for the Iowa game, from their home in Park Ridge, Illinois. Eshoo knew tickets for Clark’s home games would be tough to land and identified Purdue and Northwestern as realistic alternatives.

He bought a four-ticket season package at Northwestern, just so he could secure spots for the Iowa game. Late on the afternoon of Jan. 31, Eshoo stood with Natalie, a tall sixth grader in a Clark jersey, as well as Audrey and her friend, Franki Bontempo, near the front of the line to enter the arena.

“I grew up watching Michael Jordan,” Brian Eshoo said. “We came here to see [Clark] — Michael Jordan to these kids.”

Northwestern put single-game tickets on sale Oct. 9, and the Iowa game sold out 17 days later. On Oct. 13, the school announced it had set a record for most season tickets sold. Still, Northwestern entered Jan. 31 averaging 1,671 fans for home games.

The night before the game, the cheapest non-single general admission tickets for Iowa-Northwestern on Vivid Seats were listed at $199 each. Seats in the Wilson Club, Northwestern’s premium area, were going for $529 each. Northwestern guard Jasmine McWilliams, who received several offers to buy her four-ticket allotment for the game, which she gave to family members and a friend, said of the hype, “It’s crazy. Our floor seats are going for $1,000.”

There’s a little bit more than a basketball game happening,” Janna Blais, Northwestern deputy athletics director and the school’s sport administrator for women’s basketball, told ESPN. “This feels like an event.”

ABOUT 80 MINUTES before tipoff, Iowa’s bus pulled up to the back of Northwestern’s Welsh Ryan Arena. A University of Iowa security officer posted up, facing the door, as Bluder, her assistants and staff, and the first batch of players walked by. Clark was the last player to enter, escorted by campus police officers both in front of her and behind.

Whenever Clark took the court, three or four officers from Iowa and Northwestern remained in the mouth of the visitors tunnel. After the final horn sounded in Iowa’s 110-74 win, two university police officers immediately walked on the court and followed Clark to her postgame interview with NBC’s Peacock. When Clark and the Iowa traveling party left the arena, an Iowa police officer, looking relieved, thanked his Northwestern counterpart for all the help.

Clark’s celebrity has created incredible buzz for her and Iowa but also some challenges, especially around logistics, security and off-court responsibilities. After the Ohio State game on Jan. 21, a person holding a smartphone camera accidentally collided with Clark, who ran toward the visitors tunnel. Clark remained down on the court for several moments before being helped to the locker room. She would be OK but described the incident as “kind of scary.”

Bluder expressed disappointment in what occurred, saying, “That just should not happen. Our players should be safe.” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said he felt “really badly” about what happened to Clark, saying, “It shouldn’t happen to anybody but, man, such a great player like Caitlin, you really hate that.”

The Big Ten, in a statement to ESPN, said it requires schools to “provide adequate security for visiting teams from their arrival for a game through their departure” and that the conference routinely reviews its security policies.

“It was just an unfortunate circumstance, but it does cause you to reevaluate, which it should,” Goetz said. “It’s also recognizing and beefing up our own communication with other institutions. Because they know from the outside that Caitlin Clark’s going to bring in a crowd, but until you actually witness and see what it’s like, I don’t know if they really understand the reality.”

Iowa has made some adjustments to where Clark goes at road or neutral venues. She now always does TV interviews on the court, after some courtside interviews at the announcers’ table led to a crush of fans getting a bit too close.

“We made some adjustments a year ago, in terms of traveling [with] some security,” Goetz said. “We’ve got obviously great partners at different campus sites. You need to be nimble enough to react when things go well or don’t go well at other venues.”

SHORTLY AFTER THE final buzzer at Northwestern, as Clark prepared to exit the floor and while Bluder chatted with Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti near the Iowa locker room, the visitors tunnel swelled with bodies and screams of, “Caitlin!” Clark, a towel around her neck and surrounded by police and photographers, signed autographs for young fans on either side of the tunnel before finally disappearing from view.

Bluder said Clark’s younger fans have received her well at every stop. Although some adults have yelled “really nasty things,” Bluder said, Clark and the Hawkeyes know what they’re walking into every time they hit the road.

“It is absolutely harmless, but any time you get a crowd of people, it can be overwhelming,” Bluder said. “We have to protect her too. Every time that she signs autographs or stops and takes a selfie, she wants to do that, but we also know that takes an emotional and physical toll on her. It’s really up to us to tell everybody, ‘Only one,’ or, ‘No,’ because she’d be there all day.”

Clark’s popularity has surged over the past two seasons, but it wasn’t always this way. The last time she visited Northwestern, on Jan. 28, 2022, an announced crowd of 1,578 saw her score 28 points and grab 11 rebounds — while overcoming 11 turnovers — in an overtime win for Iowa.

The Hawkeyes drew an average of 5,019 fans for road games that season, half of what they get now. (Iowa’s average home attendance also has spiked, from 8,224 during the 2021-22 campaign to 14,998 this season.)

“It’s cool to see just how you know the crowds have changed as my career has unfolded,” Clark said, adding that she wished more arenas had reserved seating for women’s games to prevent fans from lining up so early. “Obviously, I started in COVID, which is just family [in attendance]; and now, every single game I play in is all sold out. It’s not something you ever take for granted. I think it’s kind of crazy [that] people are screaming my name so much.

“It’s not something you ever really get used to.”

Clark’s opponents don’t enjoy losing to her and the Hawkeyes, but they welcome the spotlight she brings.

Northwestern coach Joe McKeown has led programs since 1986 after starting his career in 1979. He has faced some of the sport’s biggest stars, including Tennessee’s Candace Parker, USC’s Cheryl Miller, UConn’s Diana Taurasi and Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell, whom Clark passed while playing against McKeown’s Wildcats on Jan. 31 to become No. 2 on the NCAA’s career scoring list.

“There’s a lot of great players, and I’m glad [Clark has] created an atmosphere and an identity where some of those players now are being talked about and recognized,” McKeown said after facing the Hawkeyes. “I give Caitlin a lot of credit for expanding our game.”

Iowa is expecting big crowds and an even brighter spotlight as it approaches the Big Ten tournament then the NCAA tourney, which could generate mega matchups between the Hawkeyes and teams such as defending champion LSU and No. 1 South Carolina. Clark hasn’t ruled out a return to Iowa — she has an additional year of eligibility because of the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver — but could be making her farewell tour on the college stage as she decides whether to declare for the WNBA draft.

Clark doesn’t minimize the attention she is receiving but noted that at age 22, she likely won’t grasp the magnitude until she is much older and done playing. For now, she’s living in the moment.

“I saw the tweets of all the people lined up outside the arena, and it’s just cool to see what people are willing to give to watch your team for two hours,” she said. “It shows what we’ve done for women’s basketball.”

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