Paige Bueckers' Major NIL Deal Only Leads to More Questions

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor INovember 30, 2021

Connecticut's Paige Bueckers with official John Capolino, left, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Jessica Hill/Associated Press

On Monday, UConn guard Paige Bueckers made history as the first NCAA athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Gatorade, joining pro basketball players such as Elena Delle Donne, Candace Parker, Zion Williamson and Jayson Tatum. This groundbreaking signing isn’t Bueckers' first endorsement deal in the NIL era, however. On November 10, Bueckers signed her first deal with the online marketplace and clothing reseller StockX. 

Both deals will allow Bueckers to take center stage as the energy drink and online marketplace aim to grow their influence in the women’s sports space. Sponsorship deals like this, a first for college athletes, are symbiotic for all parties involved. The benefits for brands include expanding their reach to Generation Z, while the benefits for the athletes are not only monetary but also could lead to more consistent coverage and attention for women’s college basketball. 

But Bueckers' huge month spurs some questions about how in its first season NIL sponsorships are working for the women's college basketball world and whom in particular this process is benefiting the most.

How are local NIL deals regarded versus national ones? Is there an invisible hierarchy? Does it matter how many deals athletes sign? Will we be able to see exactly how much money these athletes sign on for?  

While South Carolina won the first battle on the court in the Bahamas last week, it’s the Huskies who have the edge when it comes to the national and global reach of its players' NIL sponsorships. In addition to Bueckers, Azzi Fudd, who has only been playing for UConn for short of two months, has NIL deals with Chipotle and sports drink BioSteel in addition to appearing in a commercial for TikTok. 

South Carolina’s star post player, Aliyah Boston, only has an endorsement deal with Southern fast food chain Bojangles. In addition to having a deal also with Bojangles, Boston’s teammate Zia Cooke announced another partnership with Dick's Sporting Goods last week. 

Another question that could have an impact in the recruiting space: Is the market more saturated for players who are at schools with well-regarded football or men’s basketball programs? 

Is that why we aren’t hearing about the NIL deals for POY hopefuls and WNBA draft prospects Rhyne Howard, NaLyssa Smith and Naz Hillmon? At Kentucky, Baylor and Michigan it isn’t the women’s basketball program that reigns supreme, but rather it’s men’s basketball and football that hold the most attention.

Can an elite women's basketball player at Kentucky like Rhyne Howard get the same endorsements that a UConn star can?
Can an elite women's basketball player at Kentucky like Rhyne Howard get the same endorsements that a UConn star can?Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

As of now, Howard has a deal with Direct Auto Insurance, an agency based in her native Tennessee. But for Hillmon and Smith, nilcollegeathletes.com, an NIL College Database, has both athletes only signed to deals with personalized video service Cameo.  

But this could also be due to the discrepancy that exists in the amount of Instagram followers that Howard (16.5K) , Smith (15.1K)  and Hillmon (10K) have in comparison to someone like Bueckers (936K) or Fudd (165K). 

What are the reasons for these discrepancies? Was it just that Bueckers and Fudd were covered properly in high school while some of the older women’s college basketball players were not? 

Case in point: Look no further than 16-year-old Jada Williams, a 2023 UCLA women’s basketball commit. Williams, who signed her first endorsement deal with Spalding this past October, has over 320K followers on Instagram. How did she get there? Women’s basketball outlets such as WSLAM and Overtime WBB shared her mixtape and have been following her basketball career through high school.

Now, will certain schools like UCLA have a leg up on others because of an up-and-coming player like Williams? Will recruits care about having resources that help them navigate their own NIL deals? Will young athletes be even more attracted to UConn because Bueckers and Fudd have secured deals with global brands like Gatorade and Chipotle? 

And what about Oregon? In September, alumna and New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu was named the Chief Athlete Officer of Division Street, a venture that will guide the university’s athletes in how they approach signing their sponsorship deals. 

The potential benefits of the NIL era for women’s basketball are clear. Earlier, I noted how these sponsorship deals could lay the groundwork for more coverage and visibility of the sport. But five months into the NIL era, it’s difficult to discern exactly how NIL deals will influence the growth of women's basketball. And what remains unclear is if the game will be covered more as a result of the athletes being more visible.

Could this visibility influence the types of players who are covered? The WNBA has struggled marketing its Black players who make up 80 percent of the league. Will the NIL era in women’s college basketball break that cycle or uphold it?