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Future Fandom - Caitlin Clark

Caitlin Clark has had one of the most distinctive years in sports history. Clark burst into public consciousness during the women’s 2023 NCAA tourney. Her combination of trash-talking (including dismissive gestures) and long-range shooting made her a featured star on ESPN. To sports fans, with little interest in women’s basketball, she was interesting and fun. The 2023-24 college season only magnified Clark’s stardom. Her season began with a record setting outdoor game in the football stadium and ended with her as an all-time scoring leader, albeit one that never won a championship.

Along the way, Clark began to transcend being just a great college athlete to become a genuine celebrity. Clark has become the face of the WNBA, appeared on Saturday Night Live, and signed a $28 million deal with Nike. Through the first few weeks of the WNBA season, Clark has been the focal point for the league as the “Caitlin Clark Effect” has been credited with the league’s shift towards chartered flights, sold-out stadiums, record prices, and strong TV viewership. 

The question is whether this is real or hype. This question is better phrased in terms of degree. What we are witnessing is real, as Clark is a unique player, but there is also significant hype as she has been massively promoted. How much of this is a permanent shift, and how much is a temporary shift in fandom? There is merit to the argument that Clark is good for the WNBA, but there is also merit to the idea that Clark is receiving excessive (and jealousy-inducing) attention.     

As a starting point, the economics literature has two “classic” theories of Superstars. In these theories, superstars are performers who earn extraordinary salaries. More generally, this means that superstars are extremely popular compared to even performers will only slightly lower capabilities. The popularity can be reflected by salaries or other measure of popularity (followers, downloads, sales, etc.). In the first theory, superstars earn extreme compensation because being even a little bit better attracts almost the entire market. The second-best singer or actor is not quite as good, so almost the entire audience chooses the best performer. The “best” performer, therefore, enjoys massive rewards, and the almost but not quite as good performer enjoys only a moderate reward. This theory is fairly compatible with sports stardom as there are significant returns to championships.

In the second theory, stardom is a social phenomenon. Stars attract the majority of the market because they are stars. In this version, being a fan has a vital social component. Taylor Swift may not be the “best” singer, but being a Taylor Swift fan comes with advantages like always being able to find another Taylor Swift fan. Consuming popular movies, music, and shows enables fans to be part of the cultural conversation. This second theory, the social theory, is less relevant to sports because sports tend to have an objective reality. There are no objective criteria for the best singer or actor, but the best athletes defeat their opponents.

MORE at the fanalytics substack.



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