Women’s college basketball stars could earn more from endorsements than WNBA players earn from their professional contracts early in their careers
The 2021 WNBA Draft was Thursday night and while 29 of the 36 players who were drafted played at the college level last season, only seven of the 15 players who were named a first, second or third-team All-American by The Associated Press heard their names called. That’s because in order to enter the WNBA draft, women in the U.S. must be at least 22 years old during the calendar year of the draft, while international players who were born, and reside, outside of the U.S. must be at least 20 years old during the year of the draft, which limits the early-entry pool.
UConn freshman Paige Bueckers, for example, who was the No. 1 high school recruit in the country and who was named the national player of the year while playing for a No. 1 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, must spend at least two more years in college. “People have asked us, like, ‘Oh, is Paige going pro? Is Paige going pro?’” Bueckers’ mother, Amy Fuller, told me this spring. “Then you explain, ‘Well, they can’t, even if she wanted to.’”
Given the varying early-entry rules, number of teams and respective salaries in the NBA and WNBA, women’s basketball players arguably have more to gain and a greater sense of urgency in regards to their NIL rights compared to men’s basketball players, relative to the respective professional opportunities that are available. Current NCAA rules that prohibit athletes from monetizing their NILs limit the earning potential of athletes across all sports, but they especially affect women, given the size of the followings that many of the top college athletes and programs have and when their earning potential in college is contrasted with the relatively limited number of roster spots and the smaller salaries that are available in the pros.
Under the latest WNBA CBA, the maximum player salary this season is $221,450, with the league-average annual cash compensation being slightly less than $130,000. Bueckers could potentially eclipse both figures with ease when college athletes gain control of their NIL rights, as she could potentially surpass the one-million follower mark on Instagram during this calendar year. Using the annual earning potential estimation of $0.80 per Instagram follower that was developed by AthleticDirectorU and Navigate Research, Bueckers’ annual earning potential could climb into the mid-to-high six figures in a hurry.
For reference, Bueckers’ national player of the year predecessor, former Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu, who was selected No. 1 overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft, is making $69,360 as a second-year player for the New York Liberty this season, according to Spotrac. The team’s highest-paid player, Natasha Howard, earns a base salary of $215,000 this season. Ionescu could earn $249,244 in her sixth season if she agrees to a one-year, qualifying offer following an extension of her rookie contract, according to The Draft Class.
“The ability to earn while they’re playing college basketball, I think would really encourage a lot of these athletes to stay,” Fuller said, “especially in women’s [basketball] where the income disparity – it’s not like men’s where you’re literally passing up millions of dollars by staying in school if you have the ability to go pro.”
Anthony Edwards, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, will make more than $9.7 million this season and almost $62 million from the first five years of his rookie contract, if the Minnesota Timberwolves pick up his team options in his third and fourth seasons, and if Edwards accepts a qualifying offer for his fifth year, per HoopsHype. The 30th and final first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, former TCU guard Desmond Bane, signed a contract worth roughly $1.9 million for his rookie season, in accordance with the NBA’s rookie scale.
Notable NBA rookies who weren’t drafted, such as former Kansas guard Devon Dotson and Penn State’s Lamar Stevens, signed two-way contracts that are worth $449,115 this season, per Hoops Hype, which is roughly double the maximum player salary in the WNBA this season. Two-way contracts allow players to be active in the NBA, while also being able to play in the NBA G League.
AthleticDirectorU and Navigate Research previously estimated that as college freshmen, North Carolina’s Cole Anthony ($476,000) and Duke’s Cassius Stanley ($405,000) each had an annual earning potential that was similar to the value of a two-way contract in the NBA. “There are a lot of places like Duke or Michigan State or a lot of different places where it definitely would be very viable for players to have a source of income,” former Minnesota forward Michael Hurt told me in October 2019, just months after his younger brother, Matthew, enrolled as a five-star recruit at Duke.
However, if NIL revenue does affect some stay-or-go pro decisions made by college basketball players in the future, it may only potentially affect the best WNBA prospects and fringe NBA prospects, given the WNBA draft’s minimum age requirement and the salary structures in the two leagues. There can also be exceptions, such as Marcus Smart, who returned to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season despite being a projected top-five pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. That was in the pre-NIL era, too, so it’s possible that the prospect of six-figure incomes for college stars could increase the likelihood of those types of decisions from “rare” to “infrequent.”
Here are the types of men’s basketball players who could be most likely to return to school, when allowed to monetize their NIL
Two-hundred and five players filed for early entry into the 2020 NBA Draft – 163 of whom were college players or players from other educational institutions – but those numbers shrunk to 108 and 72, respectively, after the deadline for players to withdraw from the 60-player draft. That means 91 players who were enrolled in college or another educational institution withdrew their names from the NBA draft last year. That number, or percentage, could potentially increase in the future, even if only marginally, as players who receive feedback from the NBA that they’re not ready for the next level have the opportunity to earn five or six-figure incomes from their NILs.
Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon, who has been one of the most outspoken college athletes about NIL rights, may have been the first college athlete to ever explicitly tie a potential return to school to his ability to monetize his NIL. Whatever “pull” factors currently exist in college basketball – the pursuit of a Final Four run or a national championship, the unsettling feeling of a prior season that ended too soon due to injury or an NCAA tournament upset, individual accolades, the completion of an undergraduate or graduate degree, or simply the pure enjoyment of the college experience – earning potential from NIL rights will soon join that list, and that earning potential will be compared against professional salaries, whether directly or indirectly.
While many of the decisions that are made this offseason will be unique due to the pandemic – since every college athlete was granted an additional year of eligibility – players such as Villanova’s Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels – both of whom elected to return to school for a fifth season – could represent the caliber of men’s basketball players who could potentially be swayed to return to school, at least in part, by their earning potential. Gillespie was the co-Big East Player of the Year and Samuels was the most efficient scorer in the Big East during conference play, per kenpom.com, but neither player was guaranteed to be selected in this year’s NBA draft.
Gillespie will likely enter the fall as an All-America candidate and they’ll be headlining players for a Villanova team that could be ranked in the top five in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, as the two players chase the second national championship of their college careers.
‘Especially if she’s making money, I could see it being very, very hard for her to walk away’
When No. 1 seed UConn lost to No. 3 seed Arizona in the Final Four, Fuller said her first thought about her daughter’s future was, “Well, I could easily see her staying that extra, fifth year.” That’s a hypothetical decision that’s three seasons away, if it ever comes, and while Fuller said she and her daughter haven’t talked about that scenario specifically, Fuller said, “I know my kid and her goal was to win four national championships. She said it right at the beginning of the season.”
“I mean, that is her free year because if she has the opportunity to play with, well, her best friend [Azzi Fudd], frankly, coming in, and they can play together four years and win four national championships together, and especially if she’s making money, I could see it being very, very hard for her to walk away that fifth year, knowing she could stay,” Fuller said. “It’s her last chance. She’s still making money, you can earn more degrees. I mean, you can’t go wrong with getting as much of an education – while it’s being paid for – as you can. I’d love to see her get three master’s [degrees] if she could. Because at some point, basketball’s going to end. At some point. For everybody. And so, I really think this would help a lot of those athletes stay and she’s included.”
If the WNBA’s age requirement for entry into its draft changes under the league’s next CBA, then a greater number of athletes could face a stay-or-go decision earlier in their careers and the earning potential for college stars could compare favorably to the on-court incomes for WNBA players, especially those who are early in their careers.
“You know, the thing about college is it’s got finite limitations,” Fuller said. “You really can’t stay more than four, maybe five years, and with a pro career, I mean once you’re there, you can stay as long as you are healthy and you want to.”
‘The opportunity is good but it’s like, those couple extra thousands that a player can make off his name as well, why not?’
Former Nebraska guard Dachon Burke Jr. was one of those 205 players who initially declared for the 2020 NBA Draft. Burke started his career at Robert Morris before transferring to Nebraska, where he averaged 12.2 points per game in 2020. After the 2020 season, he signed as a graduate transfer at South Alabama and, later, he announced he was entering the NBA draft.
Facing uncertain opportunities in basketball at the start of the pandemic, Burke decided to get a jump on his post-basketball, professional career by launching a clothing brand. “I love clothes,” Burke told me, “I always had a thing for fashion so I was like, ‘Why not start up a clothing line and have a store?’ Because that was something I wanted to do after my basketball career but then with Covid, I was just like, ‘you know what, I can do this now, honestly.’”
Burke’s clothing line is called dburkearchives, which is based on a style that he said was inspired by his mother, basketball, some of his favorite musicians and having all of the latest Jordans and the other hottest shoes growing up.
“I kind of just started flowing with my own style and playing basketball is kind of like peanut butter and jelly, I would say,” Burke said.
He opened a store in Lincoln, Nebraska, last December that’s in a shopping center located near the University of Nebraska’s campus. It’s the culmination of years of trips to thrift stores in New York and New Jersey, where Burke looked for vintage shirts, especially those that were handsewn or custom-made. “When I was younger, I used to look up to Pharrell, Kid Cudi, Kanye, so that was kind of inspiration as well,” he said.
Burke said that if he had been able to launch and promote dburkearchives while he was starting for Nebraska and averaging double figures in scoring, it would’ve added to his personal brand. “It would’ve added versatility,” he said. But he also acknowledged that he doesn’t know if the timing would’ve been right if he would’ve tried to nurse a brand-new business to life while going to school and playing basketball. He’s unsure if he could’ve managed a brick-and-mortar store like he is now, but he said an e-commerce platform could’ve been viable.
“I don’t think I would’ve had the time or energy to have a store set up and running,” he said. “I feel like it was a lot. I’m not going to say it was easy but I’m not going to say it was extremely hard, but it was just – I didn’t know what all the procedure steps from getting all the permits, all the lists and all of that. It was definitely a learning process and it was definitely fun, I’d say, but it wasn’t easy.”
“We’re like, ‘Holy crap, they just totally took their pictures and made this weird-looking Beatles shirt of them crossing the street’”
Fuller laughed a few times amid the retelling of a story from when she traveled to Texas to watch her daughter and No. 1 seed UConn play in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, where Fuller and her family rented an Airbnb with the mother of Bueckers’ teammate Evina Westbrook.
“We were laughing because, literally, we have family members and people we knew, they were messaging us, like, ‘Oh my gosh, did you see this cool t-shirt? We ordered one because of the girls. The girls are on this t-shirt,’” Fuller said, “and we were looking at it, we’re like, ‘Holy crap, they just totally took their pictures and made this weird-looking Beatles shirt of them crossing the street.
“We were just like, everybody’s making money off of these players except for the players themselves. I’m sure that wouldn’t stop [if they’re allowed to monetize their NIL] but at least they would have more control over what they put their name and image on.”
It wasn’t just that someone else was profiting off of the images and likenesses of UConn’s players, but the makeshift re-creation of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover wasn’t necessarily merchandise that they would’ve signed off on if they were allowed, nor was it a cultural reference that they necessarily even appreciate, given their ages and potential tastes in music.
“It was Liv [Nelson-Ododa], Evina, Paige and Christyn [Williams] and they did like a cover of The Beatles’ album where they’re crossing the street,” Fuller said, laughing, “and so I’m like, my kid, she wouldn’t even know what that meant. Not that she’s ignorant, but she probably isn’t a Beatles fan. So to have a little more control over the creative aspect of what they want to do, I think is going to be huge.”
Given Bueckers’ status in the sport, her social media following and her outside interests, she’s a college athlete who could actually play an integral role in designing whatever clothing bears any aspect of her NIL in the future. “She’s into fashion,” Fuller said. “She loves putting together – everything has to coordinate, so [when] she’s wearing her purple Jordans, she has to have a purple shirt. … I think she’d be great at designing some of her own stuff – truly – since she likes putting together outfits and stuff like that. I could see her collaborating with designers at some of the companies and coming up with her own little clothing designs.”
‘If you could take that extra three to five grand a month and invest it, then now you’re talking, honestly’
Fashion is just one potential source of revenue for athletes in the future, whether it’s through promoting a brand’s clothing in a sponsored social media post or by developing and promoting their own clothing brands, as Burke has done.
As a former Big Ten starter and a current business owner, what does Burke think would be difference-making money for productive college athletes who could potentially blend the two in the future?
“If you could start your own brand and get money off of it, I would say like an additional four to five thousand a month,” Burke said. “Times twelve, that’s sixty grand you could pocket and that’s all yours, and then if you want, you could invest that maybe into some stocks or something like that.
“I feel like with the knowledge I know now versus sometimes you think you need the biggest, like, ‘Oh, I probably need an extra ten grand a month,’ but it’s like, you know you’re going to blow it, then what’s the difference? But I feel like if you could take that extra three to five grand a month and invest it, then now you’re talking, honestly. I feel like, yeah, that three to five grand extra would help.”
That’s roughly $35,000 to $60,000 in hypothetical, annual revenue for a productive college player with a developed brand or legitimate business idea, based on the perspective of a current small business owner and a former starter in the Big Ten.
The revenue wouldn’t be equal for every athlete, but such is life.
“You know what, not everybody is going to get paid the same,” New Mexico men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino told me in 2019. “Tom Izzo makes more than me. He should make more than me. That’s the way the world works. I think it’s a great lesson in reality. It’s not all equal. Life isn’t fair. So go find a way to earn yours.”
When asked, Burke estimated that for borderline professional prospects – specifically, players who feel compelled to declare for the draft due to financial reasons, such as the need to provide for a child or to take care of their parents – it would require potential revenue in the range of $7,000 to $10,000 per month, or $85,000 to $120,000 annually, for those players to consider returning to school, rather than going pro solely for a paycheck.
Does that level of revenue seem reasonable to Frank Garza, the father of reigning, consensus national player of the year Luka Garza?
“Sure,” Garza said, dragging out the “–ər” sound. “I think as an economics major, it’s kind of whatever the market bears.”
‘Colleges, with all due respect, a scholarship and everything else, it is good. The opportunity is good but it’s like, those couple extra thousands that a player can make off his name as well, why not?’
A potential high five-figure or low six-figure income for a veteran college player could be all it takes for a handful of men’s basketball programs each year to retain a key contributor or two, which could lead to a preseason top-10 ranking and the Final Four hype that comes with it.
For reference, UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin picked up $125,000 in bonuses from the Bruins’ recent Final Four run, according to USA TODAY’s Steve Berkowitz. If Burke’s estimate – $85,000 to $125,000 in annual income for a borderline NBA prospect who returns to college – holds water and if a returning player then spearheads a deep NCAA tournament run, then everyone benefits financially. The player would earn five or six figures from his NIL, which could become more valuable as the NCAA tournament progresses, and his head coach could potentially earn a similar amount, depending on the performance-based bonus structure in his contract. That doesn’t even include a potential contract extension for the head coach or a potential increase in athletic department revenue from future ticket sales, contributions or licensing agreements that could follow a deep NCAA tournament run.
As Burke talked, there was a hint of nostalgia in his voice, reflecting the status of someone who’s in the first year of his postgraduate, post-basketball professional career, which has coincided with the pandemic.
“I feel like they should just let the athletes be free,” Burke said. “I’m not saying post all crazy, you know go all crazy and stuff, especially nowadays – you know how Instagram is – but I do think it should be some type of leniency because it’s like, if a team is losing, nobody’s going to post on Instagram. You know what I mean? With all due respect, I can adhere to that. But then if a team is winning, I feel like you’ve got to have more leniency because life is short. You sit behind your phone in school, looking at everybody else and you want to kind of live your life as well so it’s like, I think maybe colleges could ease up a little bit with these top schools. Don’t put too much pressure on these athletes to not live their life because then when they’re done with it, it’s like, ‘Damn!’ You know what I mean?
“It went by kind of fast and it was like you kind of had to be behind the scenes, which is good sometimes, but I feel like with everything going on, especially since Covid, I just feel like everybody should live their life, you know what I mean?
“Live your life smart, that’s all I’ll say. Live it smart.”
In the near future – as soon as July, when the state NIL laws in Florida and New Mexico are scheduled to go into effect – college athletes will be able to live their lives with fewer restrictions from the NCAA. If college athletes listen to Burke, then they’ll be smart about their new freedoms, too, and that could lead to quality starters earning the equivalent of an entry-level professional salary, athletes who are borderline professional prospects earning six figures or close to it, and the best athletes in a given sport potentially earning life-changing money.
“I just think in general, why can’t people make money off their name?” Burke said. “Colleges, with all due respect, a scholarship and everything else, it is good. The opportunity is good but it’s like, those couple extra thousands that a player can make off his name as well, why not? Why not support and go forth with all of it?”