Sabrina Ionescu is having a pretty good moment right now.
Her Oregon Ducks are 4-0, and ranked No. 1 in the country. They knocked off the United States national team in a scrimmage. She’s one of the best, most exciting and well-known women college athletes in the country. And she is expected to go No. 1 overall in the upcoming WNBA Draft.
Ionescu has a good chance of making some real money at this basketball thing in the near future. But thanks to NCAA bylaws, she’ll make exactly zero dollars as a member of the Oregon Ducks, even though her jersey sold out in a day.
A lot of the discussion about changing Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) legislation has centered on elite male athletes like Chase Young and Tua Tagovailoa. Undoubtedly, once current NCAA policy changes — either internally, or by legislative force — football and basketball players will be able to earn significant sums of money.
But what about elite female athletes? What could they potentially command? And how much does changing NIL rules benefit or impact them?
I talked to Dr. Lindsey Darvin and Kristi Dosh about these questions to learn more. Darvin is an assistant professor of sport management at SUNY Cortland. A former college basketball player herself, Darvin studies gender equity in college athletics. Dosh is a sports business contributor for Forbes, and works as a consultant to athletic departments.
Making an accurate assessment of what an elite woman athlete might earn under relaxed NIL rules is difficult, in part because we still don’t know exactly what the marketplace rules are going to be. California passed a bill, but the pending legislation in Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and elsewhere looks slightly different, and federal legislation could override everything.
But both women I spoke to were bullish that an elite athlete could make a lot money. They could have speaking engagements, have sponsorship deals (local or national), sell autographs, give clinics, and more.
“If we just look at the way pro teams work, if you look at those numbers at $75 a jersey, and I think they made roughly 1,000 jerseys,” Darvin said. [Note: The Duck Store at the University of Oregon declined to share how many jerseys were sold, but did say that the school hoped to have green versions of Oregon women’s basketball jerseys by mid-December. I also reached out to Nike, but they did not respond] “So you’re looking at $75,000 just from a day of sales for an elite player like that. Going off of the NBA model, roughly 45 percent of that would go to the player. So that’s $34,000 just from that one run.
“If you look at some highly successful olympic athletes, like gymnasts, as comparison, a player like Ionescu could probably make six figures from jerseys sales and speaking. But once you bring in the endorsement side, you could be approaching a million, absolutely.”
Dosh didn’t project earnings quite that high, but she, too, saw a clear path for athletes to make money, particularly through social media endorsements.
“So in this piece for Forbes, I talked to four major social media marketing companies,” Dosh said. “And the answer I got back is that there could be a wide range of income possibilities, depending on a lot of factors, but there was sort of a consensus that student-athletes like [Ionescu] should be able to make $2,000 to $5,000 a month just from social media alone. She would have opportunities that are more in the endorsement space and elsewhere.”
How much an athlete earns off of social media could depend on a number of factors that have nothing to do with athletic performance, like what social media platform they use, and what content they produce.
“The responses I got were that YouTube is going to be the most advantageous place for student-athletes to be from a money perspective,” Dosh said. “However, in order to make the most money through YouTube, they have to have the time to produce long form content, and all the social media marketers I spoke to really questioned whether a student-athlete has the time to be creating the kind of long form video content that brands are looking for.”
The advantage of social media is that athletes can control everything about the business, no middlemen necessary. How much they can make from jersey sales, however, depends on what sort of inventory is produced. Ionescu’s Oregon jersey sold out in a day, after all, and most schools don’t produce women’s basketball jerseys. Currently, it can be a challenge to even find merchandise for WNBA and NWSL players, and even for the World Cup-winning USWNT.
Darvin thinks apparel companies are part of that problem. There aren’t a ton of Sabrina Ionescus out there, but there are plenty of very good college basketball players who could make more as college athletes than they might on a WNBA salary.
“I actually think women have the most to gain from this NIL legislation,” Darvin said. “You have to remember, the WNBA is the toughest professional league to make in this country, and there aren’t enough roster spots for all people. So I would definitely guess that some athletes could make more than $50,000, and make more in college than they might from their pro careers.”
For male athletes, earning potential generally works in the opposite direction, especially for sports like football or basketball. Jumping up to the NFL or NBA usually increases individual marketability. According to Darvin, exposure has a lot to do with that. Elite women are less likely to become more visible by going to the WNBA, NWSL, or other leagues.
“I think softball’s actually the best comparison to me,” Dosh said. “I know this is picking up even more now that Twitter is streaming some of those games, but great players go from playing in conference championships, which are highly televised, and the NCAA tournament, which is highly televised, and players become household names, even for a few weeks at the very least. And then you have professional softball, which isn’t televised the same way.”
Dosh agrees with Darvin that apparel companies could do a better job of anticipating the demand created by women athletes.
“It’s definitely driven by the apparel company, not by the university,” Dosh said. “And my understanding is that, on the university side, when you want to make a particular jersey for either a particular sport or with a particular number on it, there are minimums you have to meet ... If they can’t get those minimum, they can’t convince Adidas or Nike or Under Armour to make them.”
Those stringent minimums puts a burden on schools, not apparel companies, to gauge the market for their star women players.
“I think, from a barrier standpoint, there’s a stereotype that women should not be athletes,” Darvin said. “So some of the old stereotypes and the old barriers that women face in this industry just continue, right? They’re not gone. So I think there’s that general bias and prejudice towards women athletes. Apparel companies don’t think it’s going to sell so they’re not investing as much.”
Ultimately, Darvin said, many women athletes have to do the bulk of their marketing themselves, without the help of a school, club, or apparel company. The fact that merchandise often sells out quickly when it does get made is a credit to the athletes.
“There are some who think people aren’t interested in women’s sports, which is why selling out these jerseys so quickly is great for women athletes,” Darvin said. “It shows that there’s interest there if you just invest further in it. But right now, you’re not seeing the same investments being made on the women’s side as on the men’s side.
“So, if these college women could benefit as an athlete, it would be much better for them.”
The debate around NIL legislation is about so much more than giving men’s basketball and football players a chance to earn money. It could also benefit many women athletes, and women’s sports as a whole by showing just how marketable its stars can be, despite what some college administrators might say.
Women’s college athletes arguably have the most to gain by getting their name, image, and likeness rights back. And if they’re really good, like Ionescu, they might be able to benefit a lot.