Top women's college players like Clark and Reese expect NIL deals to stay with them in the pros


Only a few short years ago, there was no inkling that college basketball players could be millionaires or at least be able to consider staying in school because they could earn enough money to make it worth their while even with pro contracts available.

It was a particularly acute question for female athletes, since pro deals for them are less lucrative on the whole and there are fewer professional leagues available.

The games — and the market — have changed all that in a dramatic way.

Women’s basketball is one of the hottest tickets in college sports, a popularity driven in part by players like Caitlin Clark of Iowa and Angel Reese of LSU. Their name, image and likeness (NIL) valuations are some of the highest in the nation; Clark’s is just over $3 million while Reese is at $1.8 million, according to On3.com.

Iowa’s star guard has deals with Nike, Gatorade, State Farm and Buick to name a few. Reese, who has built her own brand over the past few years, has sponsors including Reebok, Sports Illustrated and more. She has another year of college eligibility if she wants it.

“I have a brand outside of here where the deals are going to follow me if I leave or stay,” Reese said on the eve of LSU’s first NCAA Tournament game last week. “I’ve built that relationship with a lot of these brands. I don’t just have brands that are in college. I have brands that are long term deals that are just past college. I think that’s the difference.”

Clark has added more endorsements since she announced earlier this month she will skip her final year in college and enter the WNBA draft, where she will be the presumed No. 1 overall pick by the Indiana Fever. Panini and Gainbridge have already signed on with her. The NCAA Division I career scoring leader has stated that her major sponsors will not leave her when she turns pro.

They’d be foolish to.

“It’s wrong to say that when you go to the W you’re taking a step back or not getting exposure or as much exposure,” said Sara Gotfredson, who founded the Trailblazing Group, a Los Angeles marketing firm that specializes in commercial partnerships in women’s sports. “There’s a lot of appetite for sponsorship and partnerships in the WNBA with WNBA players.”

Women’s sports has been riding a wave of popularity that stretches far beyond basketball. The perennially popular U.S. women’s soccer team, the growth of women’s professional soccer and hockey, the wild popularity of volleyball and college softball and simply more exposure on TV — it has all laid a foundation for fans to find what they want to see. And what they see is high-level play and star athletes who don’t have to play for pennies and pride anymore.

Gotfredson said she believes Clark’s deals will continue to grow in the WNBA. She will add a rookie salary of about $76,000 to her endorsements. The WNBA’s current TV deal ends in 2025 and players like Clark could see a major salary increase and there are more options too: She potentially could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars through marketing deals with the league and her team as well as bonuses for performances on the court.

“A lot of studies out there have showed from an ROI (return on investment) perspective partnering with female athletes will drive twice the amount for engagement in a social post than a male athlete,” Gotfredson said. “Engagement is what advertisers and brands care about.”

It’s not just the older, established players seeing a financial boon. Southern California freshman JuJu Watkins is one of the bright young stars who will carry the game when Clark, Reese and UConn’s Paige Bueckers are gone to the pros over the next two years. Coach Lindsay Gottlieb has seen the growth in the game.

“There’s legitimate popcorn-worthy type of players,” she said. “Gone are the days where people say women’s basketball is a value proposition. Now people support it because there’s a return on investment, it’s the most popular it’s ever been.”

While Clark and Reese have major NIL deals, other schools have found ways to take care of their players through donor-backed collectives. Unlike sponsorship deals which can potentially carry over after players leave school, the collectives are specifically for current students. Clark, for instance, has not received anything from such a source; she has not needed to.

Other schools like Utah and Toledo have gotten cars for a few players through deals with local dealerships.

While those deals won’t carry over, Indiana Fever and former South Carolina star Aliyah Boston disputed any notion that leaving college for the WNBA meant a drastic drop in income.

“NIL transfers to full endorsements,” said Boston, who also is dabbling in broadcasting during the offseason. “It’s hard to hear that people assume we are taking a pay cut when we’re not. A rookie contract is more than my regular cost of attendance in college.”

Agent Zack Miller, who is the head of women’s basketball for WME and represents Boston as well as Candace Parker and Kelsey Plum, said he has seen a huge increase in interest over the past few years for WNBA players.

“She is very in demand,” Miller said of Boston. “She made more in her first year in the WNBA then throughout her entire college career.”

New York Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu played at Oregon before NIL was allowed by the NCAA in 2021 so she couldn’t make money on the thousands of jerseys with her name on it that were sold. She would have been right up there with the top NIL earners in college.

She’s done well for herself after becoming the Liberty’s No. 1 pick in 2020. The NCAA’s career triple-double leader saw her social media platforms boom since she’s been in the WNBA garnering sponsorship deals with Body Armor, Nike, State Farm and Xbox.

Miller, whose group also represents Ionescu, understands why there might be the misconception of players earning more in college.

“There’s more media attention on college,” he said. “It drives that narrative of players making more in college. There might be some, but it’s not a rule of thumb by any stretch of the imagination.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness



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