DALLAS — Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese will be playing against each other for a very long time.
The breakout stars who led the Iowa and Louisiana State programs to their first NCAA women’s basketball championship games are two of the nation’s best players, with the most lucrative marketing deals among college athletes.
They are the headliners of a remarkable 2020 recruiting class that has reached atmospheric heights in women’s college basketball. Reese was ranked No. 2 in the group coming out of high school behind Connecticut’s Paige Bookers. Clark finished 4th, followed by Stanford’s Cameron Brink in 3rd.
All four of those players are likely to be household names out of college. They already have a significant amount of individual fame, and once they reach the WNBA, they are primed for long professional careers.
They are one of the lucky few.
For many female athletes, opportunities in basketball peak in the Final Four. The spotlight is rarely bright, and LSU’s 102-85 victory Sunday will see LSU take home the trophy and fresh income for the standout women. Players around the country who don’t have the star power of Reese or Clark are still able to cash in on their fan bases.
But once the season is over, many college athletes will want to further their careers in the professional ranks, and they’ll face a mercilessly crowded job market.
Each spring the WNBA faces a dilemma, with hundreds of athletes competing for 144 spots in the world’s most prestigious professional women’s basketball league. Only 36 players have been drafted, and half of them could make the WNBA roster by the time the season starts.
Now, as the talent pool deepens in women’s college basketball, the problem is growing.
That talent was on display in this year’s NCAA tournament, a display of parity unlike any in the history of women’s college basketball. Sunday’s title game in Dallas was the third without a top-seeded team, with Reese and Clark turning their games into individual showcases during their teams’ championship runs.
Clark had 30 points and 8 assists in Sunday’s finale, coming off a 41-point streak that included a semifinal victory over tournament odds-on favorite South Carolina. Reese, nicknamed Bayou Barbie, won the Final Four as the Most Valuable Player and was a scoring and rebounding machine all season as Louisiana State drew record teams before the contest.
Even setting game records Visit the game And television viewership is a sky-high barrier to entry in the WNBA, which has just 12 teams. In last year’s draft, only 17 players made a team’s Opening Day roster.
Without a developmental league like the NBA’s G League for the WNBA, Iowa center Monika Czinano and LSU guard Alexis Morris combined for 21 points and 9 assists in the 2023 tournament’s biggest moments and most important victories. May have to play professionally outside of WNBA
“All these people have developed and mastered their craft and have nowhere to go in America,” UCLA coach Corey Close said. “It’s sad that our league and our college game are so healthy and vibrant and growing conversations that we have to have.”
Expansion seems like an easy solution, and there have been many calls for the WNBA to add more teams. But the league, partially funded by the NBA, has moved slowly on expansion due to financial concerns. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league wants to add Two to three teams in the next two to four years.
But the expansion of the WNBA may cause other problems on the minds of some college coaches.
“It needs to be expanded,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said, “but right now, a lot of college kids don’t get enough.”
Barnes feared that a major expansion would “dilute” the league and thus do more harm than good. A small expansion of two teams won’t solve the problem of college players struggling to stay in the league; Those teams, he said, will include experienced players from abroad, rather than freshmen fresh out of college.
There have never been more variables for players to weigh in deciding whether to enter the draft. Athletes can enter the transfer portal to easily move between college teams. Next year will be the final season in which athletes can take advantage of the fifth-year playing option granted by the NCAA due to the coronavirus pandemic. Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia also changed the calculus of how far and where players were willing to go.
Perhaps most notably, college athletes can now make money off of their name, image and image, a category widely known as NIL where many players can make more money through partnerships and endorsements as college athletes than they could on WNBA salaries; Base salaries for rookies this season range from $62,285 to $74,305 Depending on the draft round. Clark and Buekers reportedly have marketing deals worth $1 million each, and have featured numerous television commercials with college basketball players at rivalry games this year.
There’s also the issue of travel, a hot-button topic with the WNBA flying on chartered planes to the most prominent college basketball programs. WNBA players fly commercial.
“A lot of players try to save for their fifth year,” Maryland coach Brenda Frase said. “They understand the opportunities they have in college, it’s really competitive in the league and you’re going to go overseas.”
Clark and Reese will be eligible for next year’s WNBA draft. Buekers, who missed the season with a knee injury, and Brink, whose team Stanford lost in the second round of this year’s tournament, are now eligible, but each said they will return for another year in college. Each of those four players has played in a national championship game and will likely be among the top picks in the draft whenever they decide to go. But many of the teammates who helped get them there won’t carry the same cachet.
Sinano, an Iowa center, had 18 points and 3 rebounds in the semifinals against South Carolina and was a key part of Clark’s win. She could have gone to the WNBA after the 2021-22 season, but didn’t, and most experts predicted a late second- or third-round pick in this year’s April 10 draft. Now he’ll declare for the draft with a championship game under his belt, recording 13 points and 6 rebounds against LSU in limited minutes due to foul trouble.
“The decision to come back was the easiest decision I ever made, quite honestly. I would have been a fool to leave this program and leave this family,” Sinano said Friday. “I knew we had something to prove, but I would have done it. I would have come back without any expectations.
Close, UCLA’s coach, said he had tough conversations with his players about realistic next steps after college.
Klose often consults with her peers in the WNBA about the state of the league, and one coach has been open about what life would be like for UCLA guard Charizma Osborne, who declared for the draft this season, should she make the roster.
“Does Karisma want to make more money, stay in college and get a massage, get an airline license, have everything paid for, hire a nutritionist, have her own paid trainers?” Close said, quoting the coach. “Or does she want to fly Southwest with us without any of that?”
Talya Minsberg Contributed report.