ESPN, ABC pick up Caitlin Clark's story during the NCAA Tournament

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Caitlin Clark didn't make many appearances on the ESPN networks this season.

However, Clark will get plenty of time on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC for at least the next six months. It starts this weekend with the women's NCAA Tournament and will continue this summer when Clark has her rookie season in the WNBA, where she is expected to be drafted by the Indiana Fever.

"That’s the great benefit that we have in this position where we can document her last run through this chapter of her life. But for ESPN, we can pick up with the next chapter as well, and we can cover that for the next 20 years. That is huge for us to be able to continue to tell that story," said ESPN VP of Production Sara Gaiero, who is in her first year leading production of the women's tournament.

Iowa had only two away or neutral site games on ESPN2 after ESPN’s contract with the Big Ten expired. This was the first year of the conference’s rights deals with NBC, CBS and Fox.

Clark's Iowa Hawkeyes open tournament play Saturday against either Holy Cross or UT Martin, the first of what could be three appearances on ABC. The others are a possible Sweet 16 matchup in Albany, New York, on March 30 and the Hawkeyes can get to the title game in Cleveland on April 7.

Clark's six appearances on Fox, NBC and CBS averaged 2.11 million viewers, with the last two drawing over 3 million. According to Nielsen and Sports Media Watch, seven men's and women's regular season college basketball games drew at least 3 million.

Clark should continue to command large viewership, even with the men's tournament going on. On Saturday, the Iowa game only goes up against one men's game on CBS and on March 30, the men's regional finals do not begin until after 6 p.m. ET while the Albany regional contests on ABC are scheduled for the afternoon.

With her appearance on Saturday, Clark and Iowa also become the first women's basketball player and team to appear on all four broadcast networks in the same season. The only other time that is accomplished is by some NFL teams or players.

“I think it shows the effect that Caitlin has had on the game, and how many people want to tune in to watch what she’s going to do on the floor,” said ESPN analyst Andraya Carter. “I just think it’s a testament to where women’s basketball is and where the sport is, and how much fun people are having watching and being entertained by the game.”

Clark’s final home games at Iowa will get blanket coverage.

The Pat McAfee Show will be live from the University of Iowa on Friday while reporter Holly Rowe will be on site for the first two games. It is likely Rowe will be with the Hawkeyes for as long as they are in the tournament.

Last year's tournament averaged 983,000 viewers, a 55% increase over 2022. The championship game between LSU and Iowa drew 9.9 million, making it the most-viewed women's basketball game on record.

ESPN also goes into this year's tournament knowing it can continue airing it through at least 2032. ESPN, which has been carrying the tournament since 1996, and the NCAA reached an eight-year agreement in January that includes a large number of NCAA national championships.

Even though most of the focus on this year's tournament is on Clark, there are many talented freshmen who could make an impact, including Southern California's JuJu Watkins, South Carolina's MiLaysia Fulwiley, Notre Dame's Hannah Hidalgo and Texas' Madison Booker.

“I remember just when the talks were being had I was nervous. I didn’t want to lose this tournament,” Carter said. “We talk about these freshmen, and we’re going to get to watch them compete for two to three more years. And that’s something that you want to hold on to."

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness