In February 2020, NCAA leaders warned their brows and furrowed that allowing college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness could drive a financial chasm between male and female competitors, with the women the losers.
Due to state legislators, the NCAA passed this summer rules allowing college athletes to earn money from endorsements. This week, an NCAA-commissioned report used a female athlete to demonstrate the advantages women's college basketball has over men in marketing players.
Those star is Paige Bueckers, the all-around UConn guard who became the first freshman to be called the AP National Player of the Year last season. Given her high profile social media following and popular team, she could earn $1 million a year in endorsements according to an analysis by a firm that connects athletes with sponsors. That is likely more than she'd earn now if she were able to turn pro.
Bueckers has so much earning potential that she's one of the few college athletes signed with an agent — Lindsay Kagawa Colas, executive vice president at the prominent agency Wasserman. Colas didn't blink at the estimate of $1 million.
Colas is approaching this with the understanding that the potential is really limitless, I think. What is the best deal?
Bueckers wrote in an email that she feels a responsibility to live up to the examples set by women who have been overpaid.
A million dollars is a big number for a small town kid, wrote Bueckers, who is from Hopkins, Minn. But I hope that it proves to be just a fraction of the investment being made in women's sports generally — and hopefully small compared to those who come after me.
Wasserman recently registered the trademark for Paige Buckets and Colas said the firm would consider trademarking more term related to Bueckers. Rather than chasing many one-off deals for her, Bueckers said she aims to reach agreements with a handful of elite brands who commit to Colas' three remaining seasons of college eligibility in order to get a student loan package from the NFL.
What are the advantages of women's basketball? While NBA Draft rules let domestic players jump into the league after a year in college — see Duke's Zion Williamson — WNBA rules generally prohibit male players from joining the draft until they're 22 years old or are finished with their college eligibility.
The fact that female players are all but guaranteed to stick around for all four years of college makes the sport more 'investable' for fans, media partners and marketers according to the report issued by a law firm hired by the NCAA to investigate gender inequities between the men and women's tournaments.
The report mentioned that Bueckers has 900,000 followers on Instagram, more than the twenty 2021 Men's Final Four starters combined. When she returns for her second season, Bueckers will likely be the nation's best college basketball player and by the time she graduates, she will have probably helped to extend UConn's NCAA Championship participation streak to 35 consecutive years, the report said.
The $1 million estimate for Bueckers was calculated by Opendorse, a digital platform that connects athletes with sponsors. The firm computes an estimated value per social media post with years of recent data from transactions on its platform that takes into account the sponsor cost per thousand followers along with the post's impressions and engagement. It then multiplies the figure by the estimated number of promotions an athlete could be expected to do per year.
Most of women's pro sports leagues are relatively female and not established compared to the bigger college brands. The WNBA is 25 years old and its base salary for top-four pick in draft is just over $70,000, although salaries for veterans are growing. Of course, players also earn endorsement money and some earn multiples of their salaries in that.
With NIL Rules' passage and UConn team prominence, Bueckers could earn more money in college this year than if she would jump to the pros.
A big part of her plan, really at the center of her plan, is how do I pull the momentum of college and harness it in the pros? said Maya Moore, who also represents such standouts as Diana Taurasi and Colas in WNBA. In college everybody just receives more coverage for a longer time, and Paige is on TV constantly and you know when she's playing because the media tells us.
The NIL world is open, what college athletes might earn is an uncharted question. However, an accomplished crop of female athletes hints at the possibility.
Sunisa Lee and her 1.4 million Instagram followers are headed to Auburn where she'll be the first woman Olympic all-around champion for their junior college competition. Swimmer Regan Smith won three medals in Stanford, signed a sponsorship deal with Speedo and hasn't yet dipped a toe in the pool as a Tokyo freshman.
Cameron Brink signed 2021 Stanford basketball champion Calvin Williams, whose professional appeal Colas said could stretch from athletic gear to cosmetics: She's out there throwing elbows but she's got the french braids?
Colas sees Bueckers's long pre-professional runway as a path to set the market for women college players and help build the value of the league she hopes to join.
Promoting the WNBA and other women in sports, and other women in other undercovered industries is a priority for Paige, Colas said. She is going to actively promote and talk about the WNBA right now. Because she is a genuine fan.