Jessica Hill / Associated Press
UConn guard Paige Bueckers made history on Monday as the first NCAA athlete to sign a sponsorship deal with Gatorade, joining professional basketball players like Elena Delle Donne, Candace Parker, Zion Williamson and Jayson Tatum. However, this groundbreaking signing is not Bueckers’ first endorsement deal in the NIL era. At November 10, Bueckers signed his first contract with the online marketplace and clothing retailer StockX.
The two deals will see Bueckers take center stage as energy drinks and the online market aim to increase their influence in the women’s sports space. Sponsorship deals like this, a first for college athletes, are symbiotic for all parties involved. The benefits for brands include expanding their reach to Gen Z, while the benefits for athletes are not only monetary, but could also lead to more consistent coverage and focus for women’s college basketball.
But Bueckers’ huge month raises questions about how, in its first season, NIL Sponsorships work for the world of women’s college basketball and who, in particular, is benefiting the most from this process.
How are local NIL agreements viewed against national agreements? Is there an invisible hierarchy? Is the number of agreements signed by athletes important? Will we be able to see exactly how much money these athletes are committing to?
While South Carolina won the first field battle in the Bahamas last week, it is the Huskies who have the advantage when it comes to the national and global reach of NIL player sponsorships. In addition to Bueckers, Azzi Fudd, who has only been playing for UConn for less than two months, has NIL offers with Chipotle and BioSteel sports drink in addition to appearing in an advertisement for TikTok.
South Carolina star Aliyah Boston did an approval agreement with the South Bojangles fast food chain. In addition to having a deal with Bojangles, Boston teammate Zia Cooke announcement another partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods last week.
Another question that could impact the recruiting space: Is the market more saturated for players who attend schools with well-regarded male football or basketball programs?
Is that why we don’t hear about the NIL deals for POY and WNBA draft prospects Rhyne Howard, NaLyssa Smith and Naz Hillmon? In Kentucky, Baylor and Michigan, it’s not the women’s basketball program that reigns supreme, but rather the men’s basketball and football are getting the most attention.
Charlie Riedel / Associated press
From now on, Howard has an agreement with Direct Auto Insurance, an agency based in his native Tennessee. But for Hillmon and Black-smith, nilcollegeathletes.com, a NIL College database, the two athletes signed only agreements with the Cameo personalized video service.
But it could also be due to the gap that exists in the number of Instagram followers that Howard (16.5K), Smith (15.1K) and Hillmon (10K) have in relation to someone like Bueckers (936K) or Fudd (165K).
What are the reasons for these discrepancies? Was it just that Bueckers and Fudd were properly covered in high school when some of the older college basketball players weren’t?
Case in point: Look no further than 16-year-old Jada Williams, who entered UCLA women’s basketball in 2023. Williams, who signed it first approval agreement with Spalding last October, has over 320,000 subscribers on Instagram. How did she get there? Women’s basketball outlets such as WSLAM and WBB overtime shared his mixtape and followed his basketball career through high school.
Now, will some schools like UCLA have a head start on others thanks to a promising player like Williams? Will recruits care about having resources that will help them navigate their own NIL agreements? Will young athletes be drawn to UConn even more because Bueckers and Fudd have made deals with global brands like Gatorade and Chipotle?
And what about Oregon? In September, Sabrina Ionescu, former student and guard of New York Liberty had been named the Director of Athletes for Division Street, a company that will guide college athletes in how they approach signing their sponsorship agreements.
The potential benefits of the NIL era for women’s basketball are clear. Earlier, I noted how these sponsorship agreements could lay the groundwork for greater coverage and visibility of the sport. But five months after the start of the NIL era, it’s hard to discern exactly how the NIL deals will influence the growth of women’s basketball. And what remains unclear is whether the game will be more covered as the athletes will be more visible.
Can this visibility influence the types of actors covered? The WNBA has struggled to market its black players who make up 80% of the league. Will the NIL era in women’s college basketball break this cycle or keep it going?