USWNT legend Megan Rapinoe on WNBA’s Caitlin Clark era: ‘It’s so much more than Caitlin’

The retired USWNT star reflected on the foundation laid for the sensation around Clark and her excitement for what’s to come.

Retired U.S. women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe reflected on the rise in visibility the WNBA is poised to capitalize on as Caitlin Clark begins her rookie season, crediting her rise with the foundation laid by the women’s basketball stars who came before her.

“Being at the Final Four was incredible,” Rapinoe said Tuesday at the Business of Women’s Sports Summit in New York. “It felt like it was what the game deserved and what I think fans of women’s sports really deserved and I think in a huge part, it’s because Caitlin is standing on the shoulders of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore and the Dawn Staleys and Lisa Leslies — everybody.”

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The two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup winner noted another pivotal moment in the history of women’s basketball — the 2002 NCAA women’s championship game in which the University of Connecticut beat Oklahoma.

Nearly 30,000 people attended the final at San Antonio’s Alamodome, while more than five million tuned in to watch future WNBA star — and Rapinoe’s fiancée — Sue Bird win the national title. Bird went on to become one of the most recognizable names in the women’s basketball league, which Rapinoe argued laid a strong foundation for women’s sports.

“The WNBA’s been around for 28 years and really doesn’t get the credit [as] the legacy women’s sports league that all of us are really basing all the other leagues off of and base so much of our structure,” she said.

Rapinoe compared the WNBA’s longevity in the women’s sports space to the USWNT, which played their first match in 1985 — about a decade before the WNBA began play.

“I thought a lot about the national team because it’s such a solid foundation — a multigenerational, multi-decade foundation that our team was able to stand on and I was able to stand on, even for our fight for equal pay,” she noted. “That made it possible to really capture a moment and have it not just be a flash in the pan.”

It’s ultimately why Rapinoe believes that the story of the emerging effect Clark is having on the WNBA is bigger than just the star herself.

The soccer star pointed to another major figure in women’s basketball who has carved out some spotlight for herself –Staley. The South Carolina coach won her third national championship by defeating Clark’s Iowa team in a game watched by nearly 19 million people.

“It’s so much more than Caitlin, though. [There’s] a huge storyline around Dawn Staley and her game,” she said. “It doesn’t look like she’s slowing down. Incredible, undefeated season and the only reason it wasn’t the only thing talked about is because Caitlin was going absolutely bonkers.”

Rapinoe also credited the WNBA’s recent efforts in carving out its own identity as a factor in the league’s steady rise.

“I think particularly in the last five or six years, really since the bubble season, the work that the W did in solidifying who women’s basketball is — it’s very much black women, it’s very much gay women, it’s a very inclusive and open space,” Rapinoe acknowledged.

Rapinoe also admitted that she, like many, is looking forward to watching Clark during her rookie season. She described herself as “just a real fangirl” post-retirement, adding that she “love[s] women’s sports so much” after having been to the Final Four and the home opener for the NWSL’s Seattle Reign, where she played for 10 years — and plans to catch Clark in action multiple times this season.

“You gotta capture the moment also, and my God, she has,” Rapinoe said about Clark. “I can’t wait. I’m going to the game when they play in Seattle and will be back here for the one in New York. I’m just as big a fan as anyone.”

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