LSU women’s basketball team attracts record viewers and here’s why

Jan 25, 2024; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA; LSU Lady Tigers guard Hailey Van Lith (11) celebrates a
Jan 25, 2024; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA; LSU Lady Tigers guard Hailey Van Lith (11) celebrates a / Matthew Hinton-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday’s LSU women’s basketball vs. South Carolina game attracted a record audience. Indeed, the sport is growing in popularity, and here’s why.

On Thursday, 1.56 million TV viewers saw South Carolina escape Baton Rouge with a 76-70 win over the LSU Tigers. By comparison, the Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat game on TNT drew 1.31 million viewers. Such numbers indicate the rise in the popularity of women’s college basketball.

But there’s a reason more fans tuned into LSU women’s basketball vs. South Carolina on Thursday instead of the Celtics vs. Heat, storylines.

Fans that grew up obsessing over professional wrestling appreciate a good storyline. Pro wrestling storylines are the same as soap operas, good movies, and novels. They include stories that generate interest and intrigue. At some point, the audience is too invested to turn away. We can’t turn away because we must know how the story ends.

Suffice it to say that we’re invested in the LSU women’s basketball story, and we must know how it will end. Indeed, Thursday’s women’s college basketball game on ESPN was the latest chapter in the intoxicating story of Kim Mulkey’s program.

Recently, Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin spoke of the rise in popularity of women’s sports. She alluded to the legitimacy of women’s basketball and claimed women athletes are equally talented to their male counterparts. She’s not wrong. However, talent isn’t enough to garner fan interest in women’s college basketball.

Women’s college basketball players have always been talented, but that was never enough. Professional cyclists are gifted, but I never thought twice about the Tour de France. However, the Lance Armstrong doping scandal generated a national storyline that temporarily attracted new viewers to the sport.

The storyline heading into last Thursday was that of the queens of women’s college basketball and the program marching toward the throne. LSU women’s basketball won the 2022-23 national championship, but they did not defeat South Carolina along the way. Moreover, the Gamecocks crushed the Tigers in their lone meeting during the 2022-23 regular season.

What the LSU women’s basketball team and its fans seek is validation. Had Thursday’s outcome gone LSU’s way, fans would have celebrated a changing of the guard. Instead, we remain hooked on the build-up. Also, many attractive sub-storylines exist within the plot.

We watch Mulkey vs. Staley because it’s the women’s college basketball equivalent to Nick Saban vs. Jim Harbaugh on the college football gridiron. We watch to see if LSU can muster the low-post physical prowess required to beat the Gamecocks? Also, we watch Angel Reese because she’s the Baton Rouge superstar that fans of other programs (and MAGA types) love to hate.

Like most male sports fans, I was not raised or conditioned to love women’s sports. I also admit that before Mulkey migrated to Death Valley, I couldn’t name a women’s college basketball player other than Candace Parker. But I was attracted to the underdog storyline of the 2022-23 LSU women’s basketball team, and I remain invested as the Tigers defend their title in 2023-24.

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For the first in my lifetime, women’s college basketball features lucrative storylines that measures up with the talent of players. As a result, viewers are tuning in.