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Women’s Hoops Popularity Soars

A 1960’s advertising slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” was intended to target women consumers. Although the product is still on the market, that slogan may be a more apropos description of the NCAA’s women’s national basketball tournament, which concluded the sport’s most successful season this past Sunday.

Due to press deadlines, this column was written before last weekend’s NCAA Women’s Final Four. Nevertheless, not knowing the eventual champion crowned the hoop quartet of undefeated South Carolina, North Carolina State, UConn, and Iowa, which featured the most talked about and anticipated finals in the sport’s history.

Prior to the commencement of the 2023/24 women’s season, a column in this space (October 25, 2023) highlighted the growing interest Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes would have in the college game. The forecast rang true as Clark’s magnificent record-breaking season resulted in sold-out arenas everywhere Iowa played, and media ratings soared.

While Clark was the catalyst, the growing interest in women’s basketball included Dawn Staley’s undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks, UConn’s multi-talented Paige Bueckers, USC’s freshman scoring sensation Juju Watkins, and the polarizing and talented LSU star Angel Reese. In the days leading up to the Final Four, there seemed to be more conversation about the women’s finals than the men’s.

Begun in 1982, the NCAA’s women’s tournament featured some outstanding players and heralded coaches, but many of its championship games saw lopsided scores with Geno Auriemma’s Lady Huskies, the leading bully on the block. Under Auriemma, UConn had won 11 national championships, including four consecutive titles from 2013-2016. This year was the fifth time both UConn’s men’s and women’s teams reached the Final Four in the same season.

But among the game’s growing list of emerging stars, it was Clark’s presence that packed the stands and broke a multitude of records, including the all-time scoring mark, 3-point career mark, and tying the record of 9 3-point field goals in a tournament game. She constantly recorded double-doubles and assist marks. She has announced her intentions to enter the WNBA Draft and forego her final year of college eligibility.

Future opponents of the Hawkeyes welcomed that decision. Perhaps not more succinctly stated than by Kim Mulkey, the controversial coach of LSU. In the handshake line following Iowa’s 94-87 win (TV’s highest-rated women’s game ever) over the Tigers, Mulkey told Clark: “I’m sure glad you’re leaving. Girl, you’re something else. Never seen anything like it!”

While Clark has stated she wants to be a member of USA’s women’s team in the summer Olympics, she will surely be the number one pick of the Indiana Fever in the upcoming WNBA Draft. Financially, she’ll do well, but her professional salary may take a while to surpass the NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) earnings she has accrued while at Iowa.

The much-talked-about NIL deals have opened opportunities for college athletes, allowing them to earn money based on their personal brand and popularity. Clark has been making waves, with her NIL valuation surpassing an impressive $3.1 million. She has secured several lucrative marketing deals, including State Farm, Nike, and Gatorade endorsements.

LSU’s Reese’s NIL earnings nearly equals Clark, while teammate Flau’jae Johnson also tops the $1.1 million mark. Bueckers, expected to return for her final season at UConn, will likely see her NIL soar past her current earnings of $652,000.

According to the WNBA collective bargaining agreement, Clark would earn a rookie salary of $76,535 in 2024 if she is selected with one of the first four picks. This number rises slightly to $78,066 in 2025 and again increases to $85,873 in 2026. Clark projects to land a four-year $338,056 contract in the WNBA when factoring in the base money. Money earned by Clark for outside endorsement deals would be in addition to her player’s salary.

For comparison, the minimum NBA salary for the current 2023-24 season is $1.1 million.

While both the WNBA and NBA are professional basketball leagues, there are significant differences in financial compensation. The average salary for a WNBA player during the 2023 season was $147,745. In the NBA, the average salary is around $8.32 million. The highest-paid WNBA players are Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm), Arike Ogunbowale (Dallas Wings), and Kahleah Cooper (Phoenix Mercury), all making $241,984. Steph Curry (Golden State Warriors) is the NBA’s highest-paid player, earning $51,915,615 this season, equaling $586,219 per game.

This stark contrast in earnings reflects broader societal disparities. NBA players benefit from more lucrative TV deals, sponsorships, and endorsements. To date, WNBA players face financial challenges due to lower revenue streams and less media exposure.

While college opponents are happy to see Clark move on, the WNBA will welcome her with open arms. Forget Virginia Slims. Thanks to Caitlin Clark, women’s basketball has truly “come a long way, baby”!