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Will Caitlin Clark earn more brand dollars as face of WNBA?

Nakos updated headshotby:Pete Nakos03/04/24

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Caitlin Clark announced her plans last Thursday to enter the 2024 WNBA draft.

The wild ride at Iowa is not over yet. The reigning National Player of the Year has the Hawkeyes primed for another shot at the Final Four. This week’s Big Ten women’s basketball tournament is sold out for the first time. Tickets were officially off the market last month.

Part of what has vaulted the generational talent into popular culture is the NCAA finally allowing athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. With 1.4 million social media followers, Clark has endorsement deals with State Farm, Nike and Gatorade among others

The question is: Will she continue to find the same success with brands at the next level? 

The current WNBA salary is not comparable to the NBA. The base salary for a WNBA lottery pick in Year 1 is $78,006. There are incentives on the side. For example, the league’s Rookie of the Year makes a $5,150 bonus and all-stars receive $2,575.

Yet, will Clark’s NIL success turn into WNBA success? 

“Absolutely, this is a great business decision,” said Hannah Valente, a WNBA and NBA agent for Raymond Representation. “Look at the road sellouts for Caitlin Clark this season. That same effect will carry over to the WNBA. She’s a captivating player who will have more opportunities to travel to large markets in the league.

“She has the opportunity to be the face of any kind of brand and triple her WNBA salary with endorsements. Caitlin can sell jerseys at the next level just like she has because of NIL.”

New relationships will expand opportunities

There is no questioning what she can accomplish on the court. She’s leading the nation with 32.3 points and 8.7 assists per game. ESPN women’s basketball analyst and former WNBA All-Star Rebecca Lobo declared that Clark is the “best offensive player I’ve seen in my 35 years playing and covering the women’s college game.”

If Clark continues to excel in the WNBA as she has in the college game, she will find plenty of success. She already has partnerships with some of top sponsors, too. The current brand relationships with Gatorade and State Farm are not going anywhere. But what will be crucial in continuing to expand her endorsement portfolio is new relationships. The Indiana Fever holds the No. 1 pick in April’s draft. Playing within six hours of Iowa City will allow Hawkeye fans to continue to travel and watch her play.

Caitlin Clark will also have to leverage the regionalized market. The Fever’s corporate partners include Forum Credit Union, Hyatt, Salesforce, Bank One, Gainbridge and Anthem Inc. Expect one to become a major supporter of the expected top pick in the WNBA draft. Hy-Vee has been a pillar brand partner for Clark from the beginning and also plans to expand into Indiana.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that her contract with Nike is set to expire. Adidas, Puma and Under Armour are all in the mix, too. But the swoosh went all-out this weekend, putting billboards up throughout Iowa City and releasing special edition Caitlin Clark merchandise.

WNBA move opens ‘more endorsement opportunities’

The Iowa star has the top-ranked women’s basketball On3 NIL Valuation at $3.1 million. The valuation trails just Bronny James, Shedeur Sanders and Livvy Dunne. Already the face of college basketball, she can check off being the face of a professional league at the next level. Her valuation has jumped $2.2 million on the heels of her WNBA draft declaration.

“So often, we talk about Roster Value being the driving force of NIL Valuation. But with Caitlan Clark it’s the exact opposite,” On3 founder and CEO Shannon Terry said. “There isn’t a high school or college athlete that has more national brand opportunities than Clark. Moving on to the WNBA is opening so many more endorsement opportunities – and well before her first professional game. She will be the face of the league and her On3 NIL Valuation is skyrocketing.”

Clark recently brought Excel Sports on for representation. Working with Alan Zucker, Colleen Garrity and Erin Kane. They will be tasked with replicating the collegiate success in the WNBA. Excel declined to comment on what factored into Clark’s decision and her potential with brands in the professional ranks. 

The one place Clark didn’t take dollars from at the collegiate level was from an NIL collective. Despite the booster-funded organizations controlling roughly 90% of all the money flowing in college sports these days, she opted to strictly pursue endorsement deals. 

Brad Heinrichs, CEO of the Iowa-driven NIL collective Swarm, said the decision to leave Iowa City for the WNBA is a smart one. 

“It makes total sense to me,” he said. “She’s accomplished all that she could possibly accomplish individually at the college level. I know that she has some team goals that are still hanging out there. But I don’t blame her for heading to the WNBA. She will likely elevate that product just like she did with women’s college basketball. She’s a Hawkeye for life. And we all support her in her future endeavors.”

Caitlin Clark has made ‘good decisions’ with brands

Not everyone is sold that the NIL success at Iowa can be replicated in the WNBA. 

“Caitlin Clark is one-of-one in women’s college basketball,” Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence said. “At the next level, she’ll be competing against the world’s best. Even as a generational talent, she’ll have competition on and off the court. Clark will continue to be a marketing star that brings in major deals. But is unlikely to have the same endorsement dominance that she enjoys at this level.”

Clark has already broken her fair share of NCAA records. She passed Pete Maravich’s all-time scoring record on Sunday in Iowa City. The guard is also the only basketball player in a major conference to lead it in scoring and assists in four consecutive seasons. The last goal to notch at Iowa is winning a national championship. The 6-foot guard will aim at that in March. 

If the endorsement dollars and cents don’t add up with the Indiana Fever, there are other options. Clark could play internationally as another source of income. In 2015, The New York Times reported that Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi, a holder of an Italian passport, was paid close to $1.5 million annually by the Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg. The WNBA max contract in 2024 is $208,219.

“Caitlin Clark is a true representation of NIL, which is the ability to profit off of your marketability,” a source in the agency space told On3. “I don’t see that changing once she gets to WNBA so long as she continues to play well. She has shown the ability to make good decisions from a branding aspect such as announcing she won’t be returning her last year, a few days before Senior Night, to further add a spotlight on the game and therefore drive more ticket sales and additional views. That is what companies look for, and I think she will continue to profit off of her true NIL.”

Clark is packing collegiate venues left and right. According to TickPick, the get-in price for Sunday’s Ohio State game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena was $503. When she broke Kelsey Plum’s women’s NCAA scoring record in February, that get-in price was $354.

If the Iowa star can bring the same type of frenziness to the WNBA, the brand dollars will be there. 

“Yes, there was the potential for her to stay at Iowa,” Valente said. “But now she can help make the Fever the No. 1 market in the WNBA and bring more fans to the sport. She can make history.”