In February 2020, NCAA leaders furrowed their brows and warned 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.
Pressured by state legislators, the NCAA this summer passed rules allowing college athletes to earn money on endorsements. This week, an NCAA-commissioned report used a female athlete to illustrate the advantages women’s college basketball has over men’s in marketing players.
That star is Paige Bueckers ("beckers"), the do-everything UConn guard who last season became the first freshman to be named the AP National Player of the Year. Given her large social media following and high-profile 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 would earn if she were able to turn pro now.
Bueckers has so much earning potential that she’s one of the few college athletes who’s signed with an agent—Lindsay Kagawa Colas, an executive vice president at the prominent agency Wasserman. Colas didn’t blink at the $1 million estimate.
"We’re approaching this, I think, with the understanding that the potential is really limitless," Colas said. "It really comes down to: What are the right deals, and how much time does Paige have to spend?"
Bueckers wrote in an email that she feels a responsibility to live up to the examples set by women who "frankly have been underpaid."
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 who comes after me."
Wasserman recently registered the trademark for "Paige Buckets," and Colas said the firm would consider trademarking other terms related to Bueckers. Rather than chasing many one-off deals for her, Colas said she aims to reach agreements with a handful of elite brands who commit for Bueckers’ three remaining seasons of college eligibility.
That’s the advantage of women’s basketball. While NBA draft rules let male players jump to the league after a year in college—see: Duke’s Zion Williamson—WNBA rules generally prohibit domestic players from entering the draft until they’re finished with their college eligibility or are 22 years old.
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 analyze gender inequities between the men’s and women’s tournaments.
The report noted 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-known college basketball player (male or female)," and by the time she graduates, she "will have likely 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 using 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 per year the athlete could be expected to do.
Most women’s pro sports leagues are relatively young and less established than the biggest college brands. The WNBA is 25 years old and its base salary for a top-four pick in the draft is just over $70,000, although salaries for veterans especially are climbing. Of course players also earn endorsement money, and some earn multiples of their salaries in that.
With NIL rules’ passage and the UConn team’s prominence, Bueckers could earn more money in college this year than if she could jump to the pros.
"A big part of her plan, really at the center of her plan, is how do we harness that momentum of college and pull it into the pros?" said Colas, who also represents such WNBA standouts as Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore. "In college, everybody just receives more media coverage for a longer time, and Paige is on television constantly and you know when she’s playing because the media tells you."
The NIL world is uncharted, so what college athletes might earn is an open question. But an accomplished crop of female athletes hints at the possibilities.
Breakout Tokyo Olympics star Sunisa Lee and her 1.4 million Instagram followers are headed to Auburn, where she’ll be the first women’s gymnastics Olympic all-around champion to compete in college. Swimmer Regan Smith, who won three medals in Tokyo, signed a sponsorship deal with Speedo and hasn’t yet dipped a toe in the pool as a Stanford freshman.
Wasserman also signed 2021 Stanford basketball champion Cameron Brink, whose commercial appeal Colas said could stretch from athletic gear to cosmetics: "She’s got the french braids but she’s out there throwing elbows."
Colas sees Bueckers’s long pre-professional runway as a path to set the market for female 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 underrepresented or other under-covered industries is a priority for Paige," Colas said. "She’s going to actively talk about and promote the WNBA right now. Because she’s a genuine fan."