How Sabrina Ionescu's Oregon education has her positioned to become sports' next big star

Sabrina Ionescu’s decisive essay in The Players Tribune one year ago provided a telling foreshadow to emerging fame. Her return to Oregon. Her budding relationship with Kobe Bryant. The audacity to say Ionescu and the Ducks hadn’t yet peaked.

What it didn’t touch upon was her foray in the classroom. It didn’t mention the background she’d began building to publicly challenge brands such as Nike — respectfully, she added — and responsibly take a stand for issues such as equality. She is part of the second cohort to go through Oregon’s Advertising and Brand Responsibility master’s program, launched within the School of Journalism and Communication to match the growing trend of companies addressing social issues. The syllabus focuses on the future of the industry where brands are balancing profits and social responsibility.

“If brands don’t get responsible and have people shepherding them who are responsible, it’s at the least irrelevant and at the worst very bad for the world,” said Deb Morrison, director of Oregon’s advertising program.

For Ionescu, she will be the brand as well as the face of a brand’s campaign. And it comes with a lot of responsibility. The 22-year-old is about to be an immediate superstar in the WNBA, a league that itself has become a leader in social activism. It’s almost guaranteed she’ll do it in a large media market with the New York Liberty, which has the No. 1 pick in Friday’s virtual draft and will play at the Nets’ Barclays Center.

“I want to use that responsibility to better impact and grow what I’m trying to grow,” Ionescu told Yahoo Sports in December.

Morrison calls her a future “change agent.” Ionescu hit well-covered milestones on the court with incredible talent and drive. She’s authentic, charismatic and highly marketable. And off the court, she used a final year at Oregon to finish an education that responsibly combines and amplifies it all.

Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Oregon Ducks is introduced before the championship game of the Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament against the Stanford Cardinal at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on March 8, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Ducks defeated the Cardinal 89-56. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Sabrina Ionescu got one more year on the Oregon Ducks basketball court. She also got a Master's education for the next step. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Why Ionescu chose this specific master’s program

Ionescu knew she wanted to complete a one-year graduate program before leaving for a promising professional basketball career. Morrison knew the program was the right thing at the right time for the superstar.

“I know Sabrina. I know how direct and directed she is,” Morrison said. “And I know she is going to have — she already does have — an even bigger platform as she goes out there. She’ll be working with big brands. She’ll be working with Nike, I assume, or some other large brand, and I want her to have all the tools necessary to do that in the right way.”

Many of the program’s students, which includes Oregon teammate Minyon Moore, will go on to advertising careers. Ionescu will go on to being the face of those advertisements.

“It just sounded really interesting to me to do a program that could really relate to life after basketball and just start to learn a lot about advertising and branding and how that plays in,” Ionescu told Yahoo Sports.

Brand responsibility has been a trend in the industry for years now. More than three-quarters of those surveyed by Clutch, an independent reviewing platform, said they are likely to start shopping at a company that supports an issue that they do. They view purchases as an extension of their beliefs, and have ranked it higher than affordability. According to the survey, consumers now value commitment to the environment, social responsibility, giving back to the local community and support of social movements more than price. Businesses need to make sure they’re doing it the right way or they’ll lose consumers and brand reps.

The program focuses on compassion, courage, transparency and authenticity — all very Ionescu qualities — in guiding companies through their stances and activism. Morrison and Kim Sheehan, director of the master’s program, look for students with curiosity, a strong sense of action and a drive to use their voice well. Morrison sees those traits in Ionescu and was the one to initially pitch her the program.

Ionescu wasn’t even halfway through the first semester when she began using the education to remind Nike, Oregon’s lucrative apparel partner, of its own brand responsibility.

Real-life application: Ionescu lobbies Nike for jerseys

The cohort discussed Nike in class during the fall semester and it sparked that strong sense of action in Ionescu that the directors were seeking.

“Everyone knows their commercials. Everyone knows kind of what they stand for, what they’re lobbying for,” Ionescu said. “It’s always equality [for] women in sport [and] in race. And so that’s why after we had talked and learned about that I thought it would be a perfect time to make some noise about [the jerseys].”

Ionescu came into the 2019-20 season the undisputed most popular player in women’s basketball. Yet you could not buy her No. 20 jersey from the University of Oregon store. You could, however, buy the No. 3 jersey of Oregon men’s star Payton Pritchard — a very good basketball player but one who objectively doesn’t have the name recognition of Ionescu. (The NCAA does not permit manufacturers to put names on jerseys, but it does allow for specific numbers.)

“At the end of the day it was that I played women’s basketball and not men’s basketball because men’s basketball jerseys had come on sale a lot sooner than mine were,” she said.

A few days later, the Oregon store announced the jerseys were available, but within two hours fans were commenting that they were sold out. An emerald green release in January went as quickly. For Ionescu, it wasn’t just about getting her number into fans' hands — she won’t make a dime off of it, anyway — it was about Nike’s core brand tenet of equality.

“A lot of my teammates are highly known and a lot of people would buy my teammates’ [jerseys] and quite frankly a lot of other [women’s] NCAA players from other schools,” Ionescu said. “So it wasn’t necessarily just me wanting mine to be sold. That wasn’t really kind of the route of what I was trying to advocate for. It was more just the representation of women in sport should be out there. And Nike says they believe in equality — which they do — they should do something about it. And they did.

“It was awesome to see them come forth and put their money where their mouth is and advocate for that.”

Until Ionescu, Nike had never sold a women’s college basketball player’s jersey on its website. Not Candace Parker. Not Sue Bird. Not Breanna Stewart. Her words mean something right now. She forced Nike to see its responsibility to the values it said it holds.

“I think Nike's in that very interesting position of having to — and wanting to, right? — but having to respond to their amazing influencers,” said Morrison, in her 14th year as director. “And Sabrina every day becomes more of an influencer in that way. So I'm sure Nike has to think, ‘How do we do the right thing?’ And that’s what she is talking to us about. How do we do the right thing?”

That’s brand responsibility in real-life application. And her platform has only grown since then.

Ionescu’s power as the face of women’s basketball

Ahead of Thanksgiving, Oregon traveled 2,800 miles across the country to play Syracuse, a program in the rankings but not a powerhouse.

Waiting outside in the blustery nooks of the Carrier Dome were 16-year-old twins, Emerson and Avery Leyhue, who had traveled 750 miles just to see Ionescu play in person. They flew to the game with their mother, Stephenie, as their birthday present after following the star from afar for years. They admire her talents and ability to never be intimidated, and this game was the closest to them that fit into their schedule.

“It’s good to see a woman out there who’s making a name for herself because usually companies want to reach out to men first before they go into women,” Emerson told Yahoo Sports with a note of agreement from Avery. “And women can play basketball just as well as men. It’s good to see women out there compete with the men as far as their names being big.”

These are the consumers, clad in coordinating Oregon sweatshirts and ball caps, to whom Ionescu has a responsibility when she chooses partners.

Sabrina Ionescu's education in responsible marketing will filter down to her fans, like Emerson and Avery Leyhue. (Cassandra Negley/Yahoo Sports)
Sabrina Ionescu's education in responsible marketing will filter down to her fans, like Emerson and Avery Leyhue. (Cassandra Negley/Yahoo Sports)

Fans, young and old, gather in massive groups to get Ionescu’s autograph after games. In Storrs, Connecticut, of all places, there was a visible patch of Ducks fans when Oregon went back across the country in February. Average attendance was up 51.8 percent at Matthew Knight Arena and 43.6 percent on the road.

Her impact on the game is clear and executives find Ionescu extremely marketable. The degree simply gives her a leg up.

“You come in having a base knowledge of the language and a base knowledge of understanding media-rights distribution, and understanding the basics of the language a brand might speak back to you,” said Thayer Lavielle, a Wasserman executive who launched The Collective women’s division. “[Having it] is very different than someone who really has no interest in it, and is kind of showing up for a paycheck. They’re being students of a different game, of a business game.”

That business acumen will only stand to boost the Liberty and WNBA as well.

What’s next for Ionescu?

As with most college athletes, Ionescu is waiting until she’s officially no longer an amateur to make decisions on her next steps. She’ll be able to do more and evolve, though women’s place in sports will always be a part of that package.

“Learning about that is huge just because the next level is going to be finding brands for endorsement deals and finding different media outlets to align their beliefs with our beliefs and then make it work from there,” said Ionescu, who is close to finalizing a shoe deal with Puma, Under Armour or Nike.

Her WNBA peers are excited to welcome her for reasons beyond court IQ.

“Obviously her talent on the court is one thing but her maturity and willingness to speak about the inequalities in women's sports is something I admire about her. This next generation is ready to fight!” said Washington Mystics star and two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne in a Reddit AMA in March.

First-year WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said the league has a marketing problem and is finding ways to change how people look at women’s sports. When the league turns to Ionescu to join its marketing pool, as it inevitably will and should, it will get more than a talented athlete.

“Oh, I think she could easily be that kind of iconic figure,” Morrison said. “One, again, that focus both on court but I’m looking off court at what she has. That focus on — you know, there’s something about being the child of immigrants that gives such a strong sense of ethic in many ways in that word. And that comes out.

“I know she wants to write a book. I know she wants to solve problems for people. And she’ll be able to do that in multiple ways with her agency, with her individual kind of being a change agent in the world. So that will be interesting to see. And the fact that she has this platform that allows her to do it is phenomenal.”

This weekend the WNBA will get a once-in-a-generation talent who has complemented that with an educational background to harness that talent. She has the potential to completely change the game.

Yahoo Sports’ Henry Bushnell contributed reporting to this story.

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