Apr 7, 2024; Cleveland, OH, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley cuts the net after defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes in the finals of the Final Four of the womens 2024 NCAA Tournament at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports | Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

You watched. I watched. And we watched in record numbers after being told for years that it was the Women’s Final Four and “nobody watches.”

Sunday’s national championship final between unbeaten South Carolina and determined, but disappointed, Iowa drew a record estimated 18.7 million viewers. Those numbers, along with the 14.2 million estimated who watched the Iowa-Connecticut national semifinal game Friday night , confirm that the “nobody watches” meme wasn’t true in 2024.

It’s no surprise to me that those games drew a lot of eyes. Both had fierceness, flair, and grit.

Paige Bueckers leading a proud but depleted UConn Huskies team. Caitlin Clark pushing her Iowa Hawkeyes through to the final. Carmilla Cardoso owning the paint as the South Carolina Gamecocks fought past the cinderella North Carolina State Wolfpack and then snatched the championship, 87-75, against Iowa.

The things many feared lost in the men’s college game were alive and well in the women’s game. The one-name megastars aren’t “one and done” here. Caitlin, Paige, JuJu and Angel to name a few.

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark fired imaginations as easily as she fired up three-pointers / Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports | Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

For sure, it was “Caitlyn Clark” who has become the big name. Her NCAA-record scoring run grabbed our collective attention. Her launches from the logo more that 30-feet away hit led the front page, led SportsCenter and even got at least one writer who said they “hate” sports to take a second look.

“Sometimes you just need to see the right athlete at the right time, as I did when I first watched Clark play for Iowa, to shift from ‘sports-hater’ to ‘person who might actually sort of consider going to an WNBA game sometime,'” Vogue culture writer Emma Specter wrote last week. “I genuinely enjoy watching a terrifyingly talented young woman handle herself on the court, whether she’s winning or losing.”

Attendance records have popped up across the conferences and through this entire tournament as new fans have come into this tent in droves. That includes previous doubters like Specter.

Some say that we are seeing a revolution. I see this as a greater evolution.

Something I’ve noticed throughout the season, and especially in the NCAA tournament: People watching and reporting on women’s basketball, appreciating what they are seeing for what it is and not harping on what it isn’t.

Since the AIAW era, the story has been centered around what women’s basketball “needs”.

Women’s basketball needs parity”

“Women’s basketball needs dunks.”

“Women’s basketball needs to lower the rims”

“Women’s basketball needs star power.”

I’ve heard none of that this season. Instead, I saw more coverage from ESPN, local newspapers, the growing number of YouTubers, Instagramers and TikTok personalities.

The staid punditry of the past laid off of the “think pieces” and took a real look.

Paige Bueckers (in blue) and freshman phenom Juju Watkins (in gold) lead the ones to watch for next season / Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

They found that women’s basketball had the star power and personalities, including that certain bright star from West Des Moines, Iowa, that legend-in-the-making coach in Columbia, S.C., and LSU playing the role of the tournament’s “heel”.

That parity thing? Notice how Southern Cal is building what Lisa Bluder built in Iowa City, beginning with the local hotshot staying home to build the dream. This is nothing new, but more eyes are noticing now.

The pundits constantly decried the “lack of cinderellas” in the past, but they noticed North Carolina State’s run. They noticed how Gonzaga and Oregon State made charges to the Elite Eight.

They noticed how the Ivy League, yes THAT Ivy League, put two teams in the dance.

It even extended to how the game was covered. In one smart move, ESPN absolutely aced the Sports Bechdel Test.

Andraya Carter (left) and Elle Duncan (right) were part of studio team that was a big hit throughout the tournament: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout this tournament, in the studio and on-site at the Final Four, you had announcing teams of women all talking about the women’s game, its players and the bigger picture. They didn’t make one team dominant in every conversation, discussing a men’s game comparing the players to men’s basketball players.

Elle Duncan, Andraya Carter, Chiney Ogwumike, Carolyn Peck and special Final Four guest Aliyah Boston put together a sports kiki that I believe was some of the best in-studio work since the original NFL Today. They gave serious analysis throughout the tournament while also having a great deal of fun

The championship coach, the one with the team sitting at 38-0, also gave the flowers to that studio starting five.

“Black women holding it down,” Dawn Staley said in the postgame presser. “Some of the best analysts I’ve ever been around and they are giving credit to where credit is due with every single team here at the Final Four and that isn’t always the case.

“They are breaking it down to its simplest form so that everybody who tunes in can understand our game. I like that someone chose that group of women to uplift our game and they are doing a magnificent job.”

With this great month in the records book, here’s hoping that the momentum continues into the upcoming WNBA season, along with so much already underway and with the Olympics this summer.

Oh, to certain concerned parties who believe that women’s sports are being “ruined”? In case you missed it, every competing player in this NCAA tournament was cisgender.