Magic Johnson admires how Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese deal with the hype while uplifting the WNBA

Magic Johnson admires how Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are handling the glaring spotlight of expectations and living up to the moments with record-setting performances while uplifting a league.

Johnson knows firsthand what that’s like; he and Larry Bird did it 45 years ago.

“Those two, especially Caitlin, are definitely a direct result for what’s going on [in the WNBA],” the former Lakers great and now majority owner of the Los Angeles Sparks said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “They’ve changed college basketball. The ratings don’t lie, the numbers don’t lie. Then we see it right now, probably more Caitlin than Angel, coming into the league because she’s selling out arenas.

“Caitlin is drawing 19,000. Angel isn’t there yet, but I’m sure she’ll get there.”

Clark and the Fever lead the league in road attendance, averaging over 15,000 fans away from home. On Sunday night, a sellout crowd of 17,071 attended the Fever-Mercury game in Phoenix. Indiana’s game Tuesday night in Las Vegas against the two-time defending champion Aces will also be nationally televised and was moved to the bigger T-Mobile Arena.

The Chicago Sky and Reese are second in road attendance, averaging nearly 10,500 fans — 4,000 more than last season. Johnson’s Sparks, with rookies Cameron Brink and Rickea Jackson, are just behind Chicago, also averaging over 10,000.

Johnson is keenly aware of the unprecedented, record-shattering NCAA TV ratings that the matchups between Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes and Reese’s LSU Tigers generated. Now as a WNBA owner he pays close attention to how Clark and Reese are bolstering WNBA merchandise sales and viewership.

Johnson and Bird helped set viewership ratings when they met in the 1979 NCAA championship game that featured Michigan State and Indiana State. They went on to be the catalyst for the NBA to reach the heights it’s at now.

“I think what we were able to do, the NBA was down, we were able to change it forever,” said Johnson, who’s first NBA championship against Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers was not broadcast live in 1980 but aired on a tape-delayed replay. “We also put the madness in March because that game is still the No. 1 watched game all-time — Indiana State vs Michigan State.”

NBA games featuring Johnson and Bird were big NBA draws in the 1980s and their matchups also became must-see TV.

Now, both Clark and Reese are WNBA road draws with a few of their games being moved to larger arenas to accommodate ticket demand. When the teams met in Chicago for the first time on June 23, it was the highest average price for a WNBA ticket in the past decade, with seats going for $351, according to the ticket marketplace Vivid Seats.

Like Magic and Bird, Clark and Reese have turned rookie of the year honors into a two-player race.

Clark, the overall No. 1 pick by Indiana, is averaging 16.2 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds. Reese, Chicago’s young star, has set the WNBA record with 10 straight double-doubles and is leading the league in rebounding. She’s averaging 13.3 points and 11.4 rebounds.

Dwyane Wade said what’s also impressive is that Clark and Reese are doing all this with the added attention of social media — something that Johnson and Bird didn’t have to deal with.

“You have fan bases drawn to Caitlin Clark because of who she is and what she represents, and you have fan bases drawn to Angel Reese because of who she is and what she represents, which brings in more attention, more sellouts, more jersey sellouts,” said Wade, who also has a vested interest in the women’s success as a part-owner of the Sky.

The interest in Johnson and Bird helped raise the salaries for all NBA players. Johnson sees a similar opportunity for women, with the WNBA looking to sign a new TV deal after next season.

“It’s great for the women’s game, it’s the most excited I’ve been because I see the game growing,” Johnson said of the Clark-Reese budding rivalry. “Before, we didn’t have the growth, but now we have [it]. These two certainly are helping.”