Welcome to the newest bad-faith argument in women’s basketball: That college players are taking a pay cut when they go to the WNBA.
It’s everywhere, from misinformed tweets and tweeters (and yes, the trolls) to PR firms trying to boost an article or NIL valuation tool. Regardless, it’s an argument that easily gains steam. For some, it’s the shiny headline that wraps in hot-button topics like pay equity and NIL and for others, it’s the obvious jab of “Look, women’s pro sports are struggling and this proves it!”
It’s become so ingrained as truth that even some top college players are convinced of it.
“I’m in no rush to go to the league,” LSU forward Angel Reese said on the “I Am Athlete” podcast last month. “The money I’m making is more than some of the people that are in the league that might be top players.”
Here’s the deal: I don’t know exactly how much Reese makes. According to reports, she has 17 NIL deals, and given how much her social media following grew after the national title run, that number is sure to increase (if it hasn’t already). But there’s no transparency in terms of reporting these deals, so I can’t state a number. But I do believe Reese could very well be making more in NIL deals than some of the top WNBA salaries.
Based off the known WNBA salaries, I don’t fault Reese for a second to think about her NIL deals in direct comparison to pro salaries alone.
But the issue with her argument — and every other one that floods my inbox and Twitter timeline — is that we’re not talking about apples to apples. We can’t compare someone’s NIL deals to a player’s salary, and we certainly can’t compare NIL valuation (which is a rough guess at what someone might be worth) to salary (which is actual money).
And that’s what all of these arguments do.
When we think about it or talk about for longer than 280 characters, we’re able to make those differentiations, like:
Do Reese’s NIL deals earn her more than some WNBA salaries? Potentially.
Does that mean she makes more in total than those WNBA players? Not necessarily.
Does any of this mean she’s going to make less as a pro than she currently makes? Unlikely.
Just because she trades in her LSU jersey for a WNBA one doesn’t inherently mean that Coach or Bose — two of her current partners — are going to end their partnership with her. And though there isn’t a WNBA franchise in Baton Rouge, that doesn’t mean that once Reese leaves LSU that local Mercedes Benz dealership — with whom she recently signed an NIL deal — will discontinue wanting to use her name, image or likeness. Reese helped bring the Tigers their first national title; she’s going to be known in Baton Rouge forever. And that dealership and every other company in Baton Rouge know that.
While she is still cashing in on those deals as a pro, she’ll also finally be making money for actually playing basketball. Something she’s not able to do right now.
Her rookie contract isn’t going to be huge money, but here’s a comparison we can make that is apples to apples: Top picks in the WNBA have a higher salary (mid $70,000s) than the salaries of top college basketball players ($0).
But beyond college athletes’ known salaries for playing basketball (again, $0), we really don’t know how much most of them make on NIL deals. The numbers that we often see floating around the internet are categorized as “NIL valuation” or “social earnings.”
And guess what? NIL valuation and social earnings aren’t real money. Can’t take that to the bank. They aren’t taxable. They’re figures that are computed through some facts and a lot of assumptions.
NIL’s impact on women’s college basketball players may mean no more overseas for many pros
A few weeks ago, I got an email with the headline: “Data Reveals: It’s more profitable for Caitlin Clark to stay in College than move to WNBA, with a NIL valuation almost 3 times more than highest earning WNBA player.”
That’s a great headline, right? It sticks the word “data” right at the front of it to gain credibility. It’s straightforward and understandable. It makes an eye-popping claim (that it’s more valuable for Clark to stay in college) and then provides a snippet of said data (“3 times more”). It’s so snappy that you might not even catch the “NIL valuation” to the “highest earning” pro comparison.
But dive in a little further to that data and the claim starts to become a bit murky.
Clark’s valuation, in this particular group’s algorithm, was calculated based solely on her social media following which was then given a monetary value. If a fact-checker rewrote that headline, it would read: “Made-up algorithm declares: Caitlin Clark is making money in college, she has a lot of followers on social media and if we give each of those followers a monetary value, that number is higher than the supermax.”
Less compelling, right? More confusing? You bet.
Because if you level the field and compare Clark’s NIL value to pro players’ NIL values — which is basically just: Who has the highest social media following? — you’ll discover that Clark certainly doesn’t have three times the following of most players. Despite the fact that Clark is very, very popular, she still trails in overall social media following to players like Candace Parker and Sabrina Ionescu.
And the people that actually know the NIL money numbers? They aren’t buying into the NIL valuation hype.
“From what I can see with first-hand knowledge of actual contracts, they’re not very accurate,” Erin Kane, VP of women’s sports at Excel Sports Management said of the valuation numbers. “Earning potential for popular W players remains higher than popular college players.”
It’s true that when players make the move from the college game to the pros, their visibility might decrease. Viewership numbers for top WNBA games trail top women’s college hoops games. But these players will bring their followers with them, and brands are going to continue to recognize that. And if an athlete’s highest value to a brand is social media following, it’s not like any of these players going into the league will lose half their followers.
In fact, recent history would prove the opposite. Ionescu, who drew the kind of headlines in college that star players are drawing now, went into the 2020 WNBA Draft with 77,000 Twitter followers and 331,000 Instagram followers. Today, she has about double that on each platform, plus an added quarter million on Tik Tok. As much as Ionescu likely would’ve made in NIL deals as an Oregon Duck, it’s fair to assume she’s making more now.
And listen, there are plenty of great reasons for top players to opt into their COVID-19 years if that’s what they want. But they shouldn’t do so solely because of money, because that would be making the assumption that some of their existing brand partnerships are going to jump ship once they’re a pro or that other brands — namely Nike, Adidas and Under Armour — which have signed only a limited number of college players but have deals with many players in the WNBA, aren’t going to want to extend an offer, too.
That seems unlikely to happen.
Just look at Aliyah Boston. She was the No. 1 pick this year, selected by the Indiana Fever, but many said she should stay at South Carolina for another year because she’d earn more money there than the WNBA. This week, she signed a multi-year deal with Adidas … with more deals likely to follow.
Just before the deal was revealed, Boston began her WNBA career with a 25-point preseason loss. In college, Boston lost nine times her entire four-year career. For her, and other future top WNBA picks like Reese and Clark who won at meteoric rates in college, this feels like the one guarantee: They’re going to lose a lot more in their rookie seasons than they ever did in college.
But their bank account will be just fine.
(Photo of Angel Reese: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)