A Look At How NIL Deals Have Changed Women’s Basketball

Why are so many players withdrawing from the 2023 WNBA Draft?

By Elisha Gunaratnam

The 2023 WNBA Draft takes place on April 10, and perhaps for the first time ever, there’s more discussion around why players shouldn’t declare for the draft than why they should. While it brands itself as the top women’s professional basketball league in the world, the reality is that the WNBA as it stands today has a maximum of 144 roster spots, hard salary caps, and harsh travel conditions. The grind of a college basketball schedule isn’t for everyone, but with players in the position to make thousands of dollars from NIL deals, have guaranteed playing time, and access to charter flights and multi-million dollar training facilities, more and more athletes are opting to use all of their NCAA eligibility before declaring for the draft. 

When the NCAA approved its name, image, and likeness (NIL) policy in July 2021, it opened up a host of possibilities for college athletes. In addition to having their education paid for, athletes suddenly found themselves in a position where they could be earning money while they were still in school. 

NIL deals have been a game changer for women’s sports. According to a SHOT:CLOCK statistic from 2022, “Half of the money paid out for use of student-athletes’ images and likenesses goes to football, but more women’s sports make up the top 10. Women’s basketball, volleyball, and softball beat out baseball, the third most profitable men’s sport.”

12.6% of NIL compensation went to women’s basketball players in 2022, but that number is on the rise. According to SponsorUnited’s report on the 2022–2023 basketball season, NIL deals for women’s college basketball players grew 186% in 2022—compared to a 67% increase in deals for men’s basketball athletes.

Even before LSU won its first-ever national championship on April 2, Angel Reese led all NCAA basketball players in NIL deals. Reese has 17 NIL deals, and has inked lucrative partnerships with companies like Bose, JanSport, McDonald’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Xfinity. With the engagement she has generated on social media over the past couple of weeks, she will likely land even more NIL deals during the 2023–2024 season. From March 31 to April 3, Reese had 500,000 social media mentions and reached 3.84 billion accounts. She gained more Instagram followers after the championship game than any men’s Final Four player has gained in their entire life. 

In addition to Reese, several other women’s college basketball players have made over $500,000 from NIL deals this season. Fellow LSU star Flau’Jae Johnson is estimated to have made over $700,000 in NIL deals during her first year in college. Johnson was famously signed to Puma even before she suited up for her first college game. Haley and Hanna Cavinder—who recently helped Miami to its best postseason run in school history—have more than 4 million followers on their joint TikTok account and are estimated to be nearing $2 million in earnings

While not every college basketball player is earning that amount of money, UCLA coach Cori Close told The Athletic that she expected her players to average between $50,000 and $70,000 apiece in NIL deals every season. 

How is This Affecting the WNBA?

Most WNBA first-round picks make around $70,000 depending on where they are selected. Second-rounders, third-rounders and undrafted players make even less money, and that’s assuming they don’t get cut. The league has, at most, 144 roster spots. More often, due to salary cap restrictions, only 134 to 138 are occupied at a given time. Last year, Mya Hollingshed was the eighth pick in the WNBA Draft, and despite her stellar college career, was waived within a few weeks of the draft. 

This year, the league is expected to have even fewer vacant spots. As a result, college athletes are weighing their options before declaring for the draft. For instance, even though Aliyah Boston has dominated college basketball since she first suited up for the South Carolina Gamecocks, coaches and analysts were initially unsure if Boston would declare for the draft this year. While she eventually did announce that she would be concluding her college career, many others have made a different decision.

Elizabeth Kitley was expected to be a first-round pick in the 2023 Draft, but decided to return to Virginia Tech. Charisma Osborne and Sedona Prince had initially entered their names into the WNBA Draft, but have since withdrawn them from consideration.

Osborne, a guard with UCLA is poised to make more money by staying in college. In an article with the New York Times, UCLA’s head coach, Cori Close, spoke about how frank she was with her players about what life is like in the WNBA—that is, if they even make it onto a roster. “Does Charisma want to make more money and stay in college and get massages, fly charter, have everything paid for, have a nutritionist and her own trainers that are paid for? Or does she want to have none of those things and fly Southwest?”

While some WNBA players have spoken out about the exaggerated nature of this quote, others like Sabrina Ionescu have said that players should utilize the entirety of their college eligibility. 

Oregon forward Sedona Prince is introduced before an NCAA college basketball game against UCLA in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 women’s tournament Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Las Vegas. Perhaps the single most impactful social media post to emerge in the NIL era came from the TikTok account of Oregon’s Sedona Prince. Her takedown of the NCAA for the sparse weight room facilities at the 2021 women’s tournament shined a spotlight on the disparities between men’s vs. women’s college sports. (AP Photo/David Becker, File)

Sedona Prince was sidelined for the 2022–2023 season and has two years of college eligibility remaining. She made over $500,000 last year from NIL deals, and like Osborne, is in a better position to make money by staying in college. Additionally, as she’s still recovering from elbow surgery and has not played on a team for over a year, WNBA coaches would have likely been reluctant to offer her a spot on their roster. 

Looking Forward

With players like Kitley, Osborne, and Prince electing to stay in college, the next few draft classes could be some of the most competitive ones in WNBA history. While that could mean great things for the league, it also means that many talented players will be cut over the next few years. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert had previously said the league would announce locations for up to two expansion teams by the end of 2022, and then have those teams join the league as early as 2024, but she walked back that timeline in December. As a result, fans (and players) might be waiting for a while before the WNBA adds expansion teams. 

With women’s basketball viewership being at an all-time high, now is the time for the league to be speeding up its expansion timeline. NIL deals have helped give college athletes massive platforms—enabling some to accumulate several hundred thousand followers on social media. That means that those several hundred thousand fans are now looking to be able to support these players at the professional level. The NWSL has recognized this, and has already announced two expansion teams for 2024, with room for two more expansion spots in upcoming years. 

The WNBA should not be waiving half of those who are drafted to the league, and players in the league shouldn’t be traveling and training in conditions that are a step down from what they experienced in college. The advent of the NIL era has shown the WNBA how much marketing potential athletes can have. It is time for the WNBA to take that model and make some immediate changes that would make it the best—and not just the most competitive—women’s basketball league in the world. 

Fans can watch the 2023 WNBA Draft on Monday, April 10 at 7:00 p.m. E.T. The draft will be broadcast on ESPN in the United States and on TSN in Canada.

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