Stars are the brands in this year's Women's NCAA Tournament

On3 imageby:Eric Prisbell03/29/24

EricPrisbell

Caitlin Clark W. Virginia Post

After a fairly uneventful opening two rounds, this year’s much-ballyhooed Women’s NCAA Tournament is ready for its close-up.

Grant the men’s bracket its share of familiar school brands. In the women’s bracket, the stars are the brands.  

These aren’t merely accomplished basketball players. They are Madison Avenue players with impressive shooting percentages. They have impressive Q ratings.

In a twist on Jay -Z’s memorable lyric, they aren’t business [women], they are a business, man.

Women’s NCAA Tournament has star power

In fact, the top five active players in the On3 College Women’s Basketball NIL RankingsIowa’s Caitlin Clark, LSU’s Angel Reese, Flau’jae Johnson and Hailey Van Lith and UConn’s Paige Bueckers – are in the Sweet 16. 

Plus, 12 of the top 19 active players in On3’s NIL rankings – including USC’s Juju Watkins, Stanford’s Cameron Brink and South Carolina’s Milaysia Fulwiley – are in the Sweet 16. Combined, those 12 players still playing in March Madness have roughly 16,318,000 followers on social media.

“You have the star power on the women’s side that, quite frankly, the men’s side does not have,” brand marketing expert Kyle Christensen – the chief marketing officer at Splash – told On3. 

“We’re in a new frontier. People can relate to Steph Curry, to Caitlin – and ultimately they think they can maybe make that shot one day. They inspire people to pursue their dreams and believe they one day can achieve that. She embodies that more than anyone else in basketball.”

Caitlin Clark is face of basketball

A once-in-a-generation talent, Clark has dominated headlines, possessing a $3.1 million On3 NIL Valuation. From commercial endeavors to carrying her team offensively, she has plenty on her plate as she pursues her first national championship in her final year on campus.

“Her crown is heavy. She has been the face of women’s basketball – you could even say men’s basketball – all year long,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said.

Bluder added that in addition to carrying the team’s offensive burden and being a great teammate and not having teammates harbor jealousy, Clark may be “filming a commercial one day, being in practice fully ready to go the next day – that has impressed me.”

Don’t forget about Paige Bueckers

Remember, we’re only two years removed from when the Mall of America in Minneapolis – the host city of that year’s Women’s Final Four – featured an entire hallway wall consumed by a Gatorade advertisement featuring the face of UConn’s Bueckers. She was the game’s most prominent name.

While Clark now wears that crown, there’s someone who recently grabbed a megaphone to let everyone know what Bueckers can still do. 

“We have the best player in America,” venerable UConn coach Geno Auriemma declared. “Just saying that because the numbers in this world of analytics, the numbers say that she is. We have the best player in America. And everyone that watched knows it.”

Unlike the comparatively bland rhetoric on the men’s side, Auriemma’s comments only further juice the array of rich storylines for the remainder of the women’s tournament.

Women’s NCAA Tournament is must-see TV

These basketball/NIL stars make this appointment viewing.

Iowa’s narrow second-round defeat of West Virginia averaged 4.9 million viewers on ESPN, making it the largest pre-Final Four audience in the women’s NCAA tournament on record, according to Sports Media Watch

Viewership for the women’s second round was up 121%, making it the most-watched second round on record. And it’s not just the Clark Effect: Non-Iowa games are also up 74% year over year, ESPN executive Flora Kelly said, “signaling widespread momentum across the bracket.”

As the women’s tournament readies for its close-up, that momentum is only gathering steam. “That could knock the men’s viewership off its mantle,” Christensen said.