The big money of college basketball

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My personal foray into college-basketball fandom comes at a transformational time for the sport, as players accept major promotional deals and gambling reshapes the economics of the game.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

More Money at Stake

The other day, something amazing happened to me: I opened my CBS Sports app and saw my March Madness bracket at the top of my pool. The high of victory was fleeting; it seemed that my first-round prowess was a result of pure luck. Even though I soon slid down the rankings, I was totally delighted, and hooked.

I am coming to the sport at a moment of transformation. In recent years, college basketball players and teams have questioned what it means to be a school athlete, and to what extent playing college ball is a career in itself. In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of college athletes in an antitrust case against the NCAA. That same month, the NCAA announced a name, image, and likeness policy that would allow college athletes to make money through social media and marketing deals. And earlier this year, the Dartmouth men’s basketball team formed a union, arguing that they operated as employees of the college (the university disagrees).

As more states legalize sports gambling, the American Gaming Association estimates that $2.7 billion will be wagered legally on the men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments this year—a surge that the NCAA is reportedly not thrilled about. Ratings have been high in March Madness men’s games so far this year, according to the NCAA, but it’s really the women’s games that are exploding in popularity. Last week, the game between the University of Iowa and West Virginia University broke the women’s tournament record for pre–Final Four viewership, with nearly 5 million people tuning in on ESPN. This uptick is buoyed in part by the popularity of Iowa’s star point guard, Caitlin Clark.

Clark’s fame has even reached new fans like me: My pick to win the women’s tournament is Iowa. A record 10 million people watched Iowa’s championship game against Louisiana State University last year, a loss they soundly avenged yesterday. When Clark shattered the NCAA Division I women’s-basketball scoring record earlier this year, Nike released a T-shirt that read: You break it, you own it. When she topped “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s NCAA all-time scoring record just a few weeks later, she joined a short list of women who hold records across both men’s and women’s college basketball. That event cemented her place among the collegiate greats. And, as Jemele Hill wrote in The Atlantic, the attention on Clark, who is white, has also prompted “a wider conversation about how many Black women … have been marginalized in this sport despite their invaluable contributions.”

Clark is the most visible, but far from the only, woman playing at an elite level this year. Angel Reese, who led Louisiana State to the NCAA championship last year, and JuJu Watkins, who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2022 before committing to the University of Southern California, were among the other stars drawing more fans to the games this season.

They’re playing in a different college-sports landscape after the recent league changes—one with more money at stake. Players can now receive compensation beyond just scholarships, and some people estimate that Clark’s major earnings beyond the court are in the range of millions of dollars. Her face is on cereal boxes in Iowa grocery stores, and she’s secured deals with Nike and Gatorade. Her games even reportedly boost local economies when fans dine and book lodgings nearby. As Alex Kirshner wrote in The Atlantic last month, “Clark’s singular level of stardom obscures an even bigger shift taking place in college sports: After decades of treatment as second-class citizens, women are surpassing men in popularity, interest, and financial potential.”

Part of the fun of the tournaments, I have learned, is that wild things can happen. Small teams overtake titans; solid teams are felled by underdogs having a great day. I have found learning even the basics of bracketology rewarding, and I understand why so many other fans are obsessed this time of year. (So obsessed, in fact, that March Madness could cost employers more than $9 billion in lost productivity, according to a career-coaching firm.) Even though my bracket is cooked, I’ve left March with a greater appreciation for the game.


Today’s News

  1. The Israel Defense Forces confirmed yesterday that they have withdrawn from Al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, after a 14-day siege. At least 300 bodies were found on the hospital grounds, according to Gaza’s Civil Defense.
  2. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers vetoed a bill that would have required transgender students to compete on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth.
  3. Last night, Donald Trump posted a $175 million bond, underwritten by the billionaire Don Hankey’s Knight Specialty Insurance Co., in his New York civil fraud case.

Evening Read

a ruin of a pre-columbian city
Larry Towell / Magnum

A 600-Year-Old Blueprint for Weathering Climate Change

By Kathleen DuVal

Beginning in the 13th century, the Northern Hemisphere experienced a dramatic climatic shift. First came drought, then a period of cold, volatile weather known as the Little Ice Age. In its depths, the annual average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere may have been 5 degrees colder than in the preceding Medieval Warm Period. It snowed in Alabama and South Texas. Famine killed perhaps 1 million people around the world.

Native North Americans and Western Europeans responded very differently to the changes … It is true that, in the 1400s, the Indigenous people of what is now the United States and Canada generally lived more sustainably than Europeans, but this was no primitive or natural state. It was a purposeful response to the rapid transformation of their world—one that has implications for how we navigate climate change today.

Read the full article.

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Students of the Jennings School District view a solar eclipse on August 21, 2017
Jeff Curry / Getty for Mastercard

Gaze. These images show people observing previous eclipses—annular, partial, and total—from around the world.

Listen. Beyoncé isn’t trying to stake her claim in country music with her latest album—“she’s showing us what’s possible within the borders we all share,” Spencer Kornhaber writes.

Play our daily crossword.


I will leave you with this delightful exchange between Fran Lebowitz and a reporter, which appeared in a 2023 New York Times article about the widely beloved dancing-elephant mascot at the New York Liberty’s WNBA games:

The author Fran Lebowitz said she was surprised to see the mascot when she and a friend went to see the Liberty … at Barclays Center in Brooklyn this summer.

“I fail to understand what the elephant has to do with Brooklyn,” Ms. Lebowitz said. “Because to me, it’s the Republicans that are symbolized by an elephant.”

Of Ellie’s dance skills, she added: “She did seem to be, I guess, very good for an elephant.”

— Lora

Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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