DALLAS – Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese have probably played off each other for a very long time.
The two stars who led Iowa and Louisiana programs to their first ever NCAA women’s basketball championship games are some of the best players in the country, with some of the most lucrative marketing deals among college athletes.
They were both frontrunners of a terrific recruiting class of 2020 that achieved atmospheric heights in women’s college basketball. Reese ranked second in the cohort graduating from high school, behind Connecticut’s Paige Bakers. Clark ranked fourth, with Stanford’s Cameron Brink third.
All four of these players will likely be household names after college. They’ve already achieved a significant level of individual fame, and once they make it to the WNBA, they’re gearing up for long professional careers.
They are among the lucky few.
Opportunities in basketball for many female athletes peak in the Final Four. The lights have seldom been brighter, and after the cup LSU will take home with a 102-85 win Sunday is a newly available earning possibility for the superstar women. Players across the country who lack the star power of Reese or Clark can still make money within their own fan bases.
But as the season winds down, many college athletes will be looking to further their careers in the professional ranks, and will face a ruthlessly crowded job market.
The WNBA gets into trouble every spring, when hundreds of athletes compete for 144 spots in the most prestigious women’s basketball league in the world. Only 36 players have been drafted, and perhaps half of those may have made WNBA rosters by the time the season begins.
Now, the problem is compounding as the talent pool in women’s college basketball deepens.
That talent was evident in this year’s NCAA Tournament, which showed the poise that women’s college basketball has historically lacked. Sunday’s title match in Dallas was the third without a top-seeded team, as Reese and Clark turned their matches into personal shows during the championship rounds.
Clark had 30 points and 8 assists in Sunday’s final game after posting a career-high 41 consecutive points, including a semifinal win against tournament favorite South Carolina. Reese, nicknamed Bayou Barbie, won MVP of the Final Four and was the scoring and rebounding machine all season as Louisiana State drew record crowds even before the tournament.
Even with setting records for the sport Attend the game And watching TV is still a high barrier to getting into the WNBA, as there are only 12 teams. In last year’s draft, only 17 players made the team’s Opening Day roster.
Without a developmental league like the G League for the WNBA, players who heavily factored in the 2023 tournament’s biggest moments and most important wins, like Iowa center Monika Czinano and LSU guard Alexis Morris, who had 21 points and 9 assists in the Final, might have to play a little bit better. Professional outside of the WNBA
“We’ve got all these people growing and perfecting their craft, and there’s nowhere for us to go in the United States,” said UCLA coach Corey Close. “It’s really sad that those are the conversations we’ve had with our league and that our college game is so healthy, vibrant, and growing.”
Expansion seemed like the easy solution, and there were many calls for the WNBA to add more teams. But the league, which was funded in part by the NBA, moved slowly in 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 could cause other problems, in the minds of some college coaches.
“It needs to expand,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes, “but right now, a lot of the college kids aren’t good enough.”
Barnes feared that a major expansion would “weaken” the league and thus do more harm than good. Nor would a small two-team expansion solve the problem of college players struggling to stay in the league; She said that these teams will likely add experienced players from overseas, rather than rookies out of college.
The variables players have to consider when deciding whether to enter the draft have never been greater. Athletes can access the Transfer Portal as a way to easily move between college teams. Next year will be the last season that athletes can take advantage of the fifth-year play option given to them by the NCAA due to the coronavirus pandemic. Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia has also changed the calculus about how far and where players want to go.
Perhaps most importantly, college athletes can now earn money using their name, image, and likeness, a category widely known as the NIL. Many players can make more money from collections and endorsements as collegiate athletes than they can make from a WNBA salary alone; The base salary for the rookie this season will range from $62,285 to $74,305 Depending on the draft round. Clark and the Boykers are said to have marketing deals worth $1 million each, and this year’s championship game has featured several TV commercials with college basketball players.
There’s also the issue of travel, which has been a hot topic in the WNBA. WNBA players fly commercials.
“A lot of players are trying to save for their fifth year,” said Maryland coach Brenda Friese. “They understand the opportunities they have in college and it’s really, really competitive in the league, and you’re probably going overseas.”
Clark and Reese will be eligible for the WNBA draft next year. The Bakers, who missed the season with a knee injury, and Brink, whose team lost to Stanford in the second round of this year’s tournament, are now eligible but have said they will return for another year of college. Each of these four players has played a National Championship game, and will be among the top picks in the draft whenever they decide to go. But many of the teammates they helped lead to won’t carry the same ring.
Central Iowa, Chinano scored 18 points and grabbed 3 rebounds in the semifinal against South Carolina and was a vital component in Clark’s success. She could have left for the WNBA after the 2021-22 season but she didn’t, and most experts expect her to be a late second or third round pick in this year’s draft on April 10th. A draft pick with a championship game under her belt, she posted 13 points and 6 rebounds against LSU in limited minutes due to a foul problem.
“Deciding to come back was the easiest decision I’ve ever made, quite frankly. I would be an idiot if I left this show and left this family,” Czenano said Friday. “I knew we had something to prove, but I would do it no matter what. I would come back with no expectations whatsoever.”
Close, the UCLA coach, said she has had difficult conversations with her players about realistic next steps after college.
Close often consults her WNBA teammates about the state of the league, and one coach has been candid about what life could be like for superstar UCLA protege Charisma Osborne, who is announced for the draft this season, if she made the roster.
“Does Charisma want to make more money and stay in college and get massages, and plane tickets, and pay for everything, and get a paid nutritionist and trainers?” Close said, quoting the coach. “Or does she want to have none of these things and fly with us to the southwest?”
Talia Mensburg Contribute to the preparation of reports.
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