Why Caitlin Clark could make more money staying in college than going to the WNBA

Caitlin Clark is one of the biggest stars in college basketball. She’s just 51 points away from setting the all-time scoring record in Division I history — men’s or women’s — currently held by Pete Maravich, with 3,667 points.

Clark will likely be the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft when she turns pro. But will she leave the Iowa Hawkeyes after this season or stay in college another year?

Clark is a senior, but she has a fifth year of NCAA eligibility due to the additional year granted to many athletes who lost time during their college careers due to the COVID pandemic. So she must decide whether becoming a supersenior or declaring for the WNBA Draft will be better for her — and her finances.

“The answer has changed a ton in the last three years because the NCAA dropped its ban on NIL,” Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross who specializes in sports, told MarketWatch, referring to income from name, image and likeness. “Three years ago, if she had decided to come back for another year, she’d get a year of high-quality Iowa education and the love and adulation of every person in Iowa, but she wouldn’t have been able to get any cash out of it. A move to the WNBA would have made sense.”

But times have changed.

The NCAA began allowing college athletes to earn money off their name, image and likeness in 2021, when student-athletes won a decades-long argument over the fairness of receiving no remuneration for use of their NIL, even as the games they played in generated millions of dollars for the institutions in which they were enrolled.

Clark will make an estimated $910,000 from NIL deals this season, according to On3’s proprietary NIL algorithm, which is based on NIL-deal data, performance, influence and exposure. She has deals with brands including Gatorade, State Farm, Nike
Buick, Topps and H&R Block

If she turns pro and is one of the top picks, she will earn $76,535 in salary, so she would likely earn a majority of her income from off-court business opportunities.

Last season, 10 college athletes made over $1 million from NIL deals, including two women. One of them was basketball player Angel Reese of Louisiana State University, who made $1.7 million.

For many top male athletes who have college eligibility left, the question of whether to go pro is easier to decide, because the salaries NBA, NFL and MLB pay their top players are a lot higher than the amounts the players earn through NIL deals. 

See also: Super Bowl quarterback Brock Purdy made $870,000 this season, but 16 college football players made more in NIL income

“I think [Clark] should stay,” Tim Derdenger, associate professor of marketing and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, told MarketWatch. “The spotlight will be even bigger for her coming back and her NIL deals will be larger, especially if she wins the championship. From a financial standpoint I think she makes more money in college … it’s crazy to say.”

Part of the reasoning is the huge following that women’s college basketball now has.

TV viewership for an average WNBA game is up from 379,000 in 2022 to 505,000 in 2023, a strong increase, but the interest in women’s college basketball is on a different level. Viewership for women’s college basketball regular-season games has routinely been over 1 million. Peacock launched a “Caitlin Cast,” a broadcast that followed Clark’s pursuit of the women’s scoring record that was sponsored by State Farm.

Then there is the immensely popular March Madness: The women’s championship game last year reached 9.9 million viewers. The WNBA Finals games, meanwhile, averaged 728,000 viewers, according to ESPN PR.

“Is her brand more valuable in college, or as a pro? That’s the simplest way to frame this,” Derdenger said. “$76K is not a lot of money to go play in the WNBA, rightly or wrongly. College basketball right now is bigger than the WNBA.”

Game viewership isn’t everything, and some unique opportunities will likely be waiting for Clark once she turns pro, possibly including a three-point shootout with Sabrina Ionescu of the New York Liberty and Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors.

But the potential decrease in TV exposure and fan eyeballs for Clark if she joins the WNBA could translate to less money in off-court endorsements.

“You could say that maybe she would have fewer deals,” NIL attorney Mit Winter of Kennyhertz Perry, a Kansas City law firm, told MarketWatch. He added, however, that it’s not as if brands like Nike and State Farm would suddenly stop working with her after she turns professional.

Other NIL experts see a move by Clark to the professional ranks as a potential risk.

“The longer Clark remains in school, the less risk that exists with respect to diluting a brand that appears to only be growing by the day,” Darren Heitner, a lawyer who brokers NIL deals for student athletes, told MarketWatch.

Even Las Vegas Aces star Kelsey Plum, whose women’s NCAA scoring record Clark broke in February, thinks Iowa should do everything it can to hold onto Clark for another year.

“Everyone’s trying to figure out if she’s coming out or staying put, but if I’m Iowa, I’m gonna throw the kitchen sink at her, for sure,” Plum said.

In making such a decision, money isn’t always the deciding factor, and a student-athlete must take a variety of factors into consideration. Clark might want to stay in Iowa another year to earn her master’s degree, for example, or perhaps she is not keen on living in Indianapolis and playing for the Indiana Fever, which holds the top WNBA draft selection in 2024.

But of course it’s possible that Clark, widely considered one of the best women’s basketball prospects of all time, will transcend both the college and pro game. Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and a sports-business expert, thinks whatever team Clark is on, eyeballs will follow.

“The stage size will shift,” he said, “depending on which stage Caitlin Clark is on.”

See also: EA’s upcoming college-football game ‘taking advantage’ of players with $600 payment, expert says

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