The 2023-24 college basketball season begins on Monday, and under normal circumstances, this would be the final year for superstars Angel Reese (LSU), Caitlin Clark (Iowa) and Paige Bueckers (UConn). But the fifth year of eligibility granted to players back in 2020-21 due to the pandemic means all will have the ability to return in 2024-25, should they so choose (Bueckers could even return for another year after that after using an injury redshirt last season).
Their decisions will be closely watched by college and WNBA fans alike. Clark, Reese and Bueckers aren’t the first stars of women’s college basketball, of course, but they are the sports’ first wave in the name, image and likeness era. And they’re cashing in for it—Reese, Clark and Bueckers all land on the On3 NIL 100, a weekly ranking of the top 100 NIL valuations across college sports (men’s and women’s). After leading LSU to the national title in April, Reese’s NIL valuation is a whopping $1.7 million—which ranks seventh among all NCAA and committed high school athletes. Clark ranks 45th at $762,000, and Bueckers checks in at 69th at $643,000.
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Unlike in men’s basketball, there’s no such thing as “one-and-dones” on the women’s side. To be eligible for the WNBA draft, players have to either complete their four-year degree or be four years removed from graduating high school. Because of this, women’s players leaving school before their senior year is rare, but not unheard of (and leaving early to pursue a career in Europe has no such restrictions).
The COVID bonus year—which the class including Reese, Clark and Bueckers will be the last to receive—adds a unique twist to this. If this were pre-NIL, it’d be hard to picture someone like Clark or Reese staying in school past four years—beginning their pro careers and starting to earn money while in their athletic primes would be a no-brainer. But given what the trio are raking in in endorsements and their popularity in their college markets, delaying turning pro for a fifth year in college suddenly looks enticing.
No. 1 2023 WNBA draft pick Aliyah Boston is making $74,305 in base salary this season after signing with the Indiana Fever—that’s the maximum for a rookie. Per Sportrac, recent MVP winner Breanna Stewart made $175,000 this season with the New York Liberty, her seventh year in the league, and the WNBA’s top earner in 2023 was Las Vegas Aces star Jackie Young, who made $252,450. Many league players also spend their offseasons playing abroad for additional income, though the market can vary outside of top stars.
After winning the national title in April, Reese said on the I Am Athlete podcast that she’s “in no rush to go to the [WNBA]. The money I’m making is more than some of the people that are in the league that might be top players.” Earlier this month, Clark said she will approach this season as if it’s her last go-around but will “trust my gut” and make a decision when that time comes. Bueckers recently told reporters, “I guess we’ll see,” when asked about her UConn future.
These players’ name, image and likeness value will not suddenly evaporate when they turn pro. The interest in them is vast, and keeps coming: Reebok recently signed Reese to its first NIL deal; Clark recently signed a deal with State Farm and with Peyton Manning’s agent at Excel Sports Management; and Bueckers garnered an NIL deal with Nike in September. But the calculus could certainly change when they’re no longer representing a fervent college fan market.
Consider that Game 4 of the recent WNBA Finals averaged 889,000 viewers and peaked at 1.3 million, while Reese’s LSU beating Clark’s Iowa in April’s national championship drew a record 9.9 million viewers. Women’s college basketball is on a serious momentum heater of late, and Reese, Clark and Bueckers are leading the charge. Iowa sold out its season tickets in August; LSU did the same earlier this month. The sport as a whole would clearly greatly benefit from any of the superstar trio sticking around. But the ball is in the players’ court, and what they do over the next five months will help shape their decision.
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