THE CAITLIN CLARK EFFECT: Much like she did with the Iowa Hawkeyes, Caitlin Clark attracted thousands of fans to visit Mohegan Sun Arena and drew millions more to watch on television. (Getty Images)

WNBA Rookie’s Debut Helps Venue Set Records

Caitlin Clark mania made its way through Mohegan Sun Arena as the WNBA’s 2024 No. 1 draft pick made her highly anticipated professional debut in front of a sold-out crowd in Uncasville, Connecticut, on May 14.

The former Iowa Hawkeye who galvanized sports fans to watch women’s collegiate basketball carried that influence and momentum into her first WNBA contest as a member of the Indiana Fever and scored a team-high 20 points in a 92-71 loss to the Connecticut Sun with more than 9,000 in attendance and millions more watching on television.

Clark’s stats from her first game may not be anything to boast about, but Mohegan Sun Arena had plenty to celebrate. It was the venue’s first sold-out WNBA game in over two decades, and though figures weren’t provided, Mohegan President of Sports and Entertainment Tom Cantone said it was a record night for food and beverage sales.

RECORD NIGHT: Tom Cantone, president of sports and entertainment at Mohegan, said that food and beverage sales tripled during the sold-out contest between the Connecticut Sun and Indiana Fever. (Photo courtesy Mohegan Sun Arena)

“It was triple what we would normally do,” Cantone said. “The economic impact of Tuesday night was felt by everybody. There were lines everywhere, over 9,000 people wanting to eat and get a drink. Our concerts are always like that, but it’s not common to see [that success] spread to our franchise, and that’s pretty cool. … This one will go up there in the history books as the biggest basketball event I think we’ve ever had.”

Cantone said it was the biggest sporting event the arena had seen since the 2002 boxing match between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, which was dubbed the “fight of the century.” Iowa fans traveled to Uncasville to witness Clark’s pro debut, which led to hotels in the area being fully booked.

“Good Morning America” and media outlets were on-site to witness the 22-year-old stepping onto the court, and Cantone was stunned to see such interest in one player.

“The excitement was like New Year’s Eve, beyond anything I’ve ever seen for a basketball game, and UConn plays at our venue and does pretty well, but this was just a frenzy of people to see her,” Cantone said. “This was a celebration of an individual who has brought her game to the next level, and let’s see where it goes.”

FEVER PITCH: A young Indiana Fever fan was among the 9,000-plus who visited Mohegan Sun Arena to witness Caitlin Clark’s WNBA debut. (Getty Images)

The world will have to wait and see where the rookie’s talent takes her as a basketball player, but Clark’s brand and recognition are already having a major effect on the WNBA. The game between the Fever and Sun was the league’s most-watched game since 2001 with an average audience of 2.13 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch.

Sports fans have witnessed the Caitlin Clark effect over the last four years, which culminated in April with one of the biggest milestones women’s sports have seen in terms of viewership. Clark, who became the NCAA Division I all-time scoring leader, propelled Iowa to its first national championship game, a matchup against South Carolina that averaged nearly 19 million viewers, a 285% increase from 2022, ESPN reported. The 2024 NCAA women’s basketball title game was also the most-watched basketball game (men’s or women’s, college or professional) since 2019, which only bodes well for Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the home of the Fever, and every other venue hosting Clark and her team.

“The power of one has affected the entire enterprise, the entire league,” Cantone said. “Everyone benefited from her, and every arena she’s playing is sold out. Just think of the economic impact this one individual has had at every venue she’s played. Our hotels were sold out. You couldn’t get into a restaurant. Good luck finding a place to park. … Caitlin mania made us the most important arena in America.”