The Caitlin Clark business is booming. Here’s how her WNBA sponsorships are lining up

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Last fall, representatives from Gainbridge, an Indiana-based annuities seller, reached out to Caitlin Clark’s marketing agents at Excel Sports Management to discuss a sponsorship deal. The company was launching a new product line and its executives believed Clark could help them reach younger customers.

Minji Ro, Gainbridge’s chief strategy officer, is also a longtime WNBA fan, and she knew that the Indiana Fever had a 44.2 percent chance of winning the WNBA lottery in December. Gainbridge holds the naming rights to the Fever’s arena, and Clark would be the presumptive No. 1 pick if she declared for the draft.

But Ro said that the company didn’t even discuss the decision with Clark during the months of negotiations that finally ended in February with a signed contract. Ultimately, Ro said, she didn’t care where Clark would play, whether it was in the WNBA or at the University of Iowa for one more season. She just wanted to be in the Caitlin Clark business.

“We were in no matter what,” Ro said. “Because that’s the power of Caitlin Clark. So she plays in Indiana, that’s great, but it doesn’t actually matter where she plays because she’s gonna sell out everywhere.”

When Clark finally declared for the draft last week, as had long been expected, she set an end date to her record-setting college career. The WNBA awaits, and the Fever won the No. 1 pick in December, putting them in prime position to land a player who is rising and who has shown herself to be a marketing powerhouse, with a sponsorship portfolio of blue chip companies and more than 1 million Instagram followers.

Laced throughout that lively conversation about what Clark can do for the league, there has also been fretful, speculative discussion of what the decision would mean for Clark financially, and if being in the WNBA would amount to a pay cut.

The consensus among a coterie of people involved in women’s basketball and involved with her directly is that Clark’s income, and her marketing potential, would not suffer once she jumps to the WNBA this summer. Instead, they say, she seems likely to surpass what she earned this season at Iowa.

“It’s a bad narrative,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said of the idea that Clark would be sacrificing by playing professionally.

“Pre-Caitlin Clark, I’ve been trying to correct the media that NIL deals, when they’re national sponsors like Caitlin and Angel Reese and Cameron Brink, those are just called endorsements in the pros. I just find it funny that nobody ever said this about LeBron James, or Michael Jordan who made a lot more money with their endorsements than they did in their salary in the NBA. Nobody ever said that. Now, all of a sudden, because it’s women’s sports, people are saying that. That’s absolutely untrue when you have these national brands.”

The dilemma is one that male college basketball players rarely have to reckon with. A job in the NBA usually comes with a multi-million dollar salary, and lucrative marketing deals for the top picks. But it has followed Clark, and other top women in college basketball, for the last three years as college athletes have been able to profit off their name, image and likeness rights. Today, the choice to head to the WNBA comes with a head-to-head comparison: a rookie pro salary and endorsement prospects versus the NIL income from local collectives and businesses associated with college sports.

While top NBA prospects often leave for the league as soon as possible, the choice for top women’s players lingers. Paige Bueckers, a projected top-3 pick, recently said she would return for a senior season at the University of Connecticut.

Clark, however, is in a class of her own. At a time when women’s sports is ascending, she is the rising tide lifting those boats even higher. She added two new national sponsors just this week and is expected to sign a new sneaker deal that will be one of the biggest in the WNBA, according to two people briefed on the situation.

Her marketing infrastructure has expanded in kind. This fall, she signed with Excel for marketing representation, sharing an agent with Peyton Manning, helping to pile up the endorsements.

Gainbridge rolled out her arrangement on Tuesday. She joins Billie Jean King and Annika Sörenstam in promoting the company’s latest annuities product for women. Panini said Wednesday that Clark is the first woman it has signed to an exclusive trading card deal.

Panini engaged Clark’s camp in October. Jason Howarth, Panini’s senior VP of marketing, said the two sides completed the contract more than a month ago but waited until the right time to announce it. It will take effect on April 1. Clark had previously had a deal with Topps.

“Caitlin is a transcendent athlete, and we think that she is going to be special whether she stayed at Iowa or whether she decided to go to the W,” Howarth said. “We were willing to commit to that. We knew exactly whatever her decision was, we’d be comfortable with it and we’d lean in on it and figure out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to present it.”

The most high-profile of her endorsements will keep her under contract past her Iowa days and into the start of her WNBA career. Her contracts with Gatorade and State Farm extend into her WNBA career, one person with knowledge of her marketing deals said.

Jeff Kearney, Gatorade’s head of sports marketing, said the company has a multi-year deal with Clark. A sponsorship deal with Hy-Vee, the grocery chain, will run past 2024, Tina Pothoff, Hy-Vee’s vice president of communications, said. State Farm did not respond to a message seeking comment. A spokesperson for Buick replied after initial publication to note that it does not currently have a sponsorship deal with Clark, though it did previously feature her social media campaign.

“It’s gonna be harder,” Kearney said. “You know the competition is going to be tougher. Players are faster. The players are better. But again, I think she has an it-factor and is driven to succeed. So it certainly doesn’t change the approach that we have of trying to celebrate this phenomenal athlete and tell her story. It doesn’t matter what jersey she has on.”

“It doesn’t matter what jersey she has on.” Clark’s worth is expected to see more gains in the WNBA. (David Berding / Getty Images)

Though many of her deals will continue to run, she is on the precipice of making even more money than she did this season at Iowa. Clark did not take any money from Iowa’s main collective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

She will make a salary in the WNBA — the No. 1 pick is guaranteed $76,535 in her first season — unlike at Iowa. She can also avail herself of up to $250,000 in a league marketing deal and up to $100,000 in a team marketing contract if she eschews playing abroad next offseason, or she can sign what is likely to be a high-paying contract to play for a team in Europe or China.

She has a deal with Nike, which is one of the WNBA’s financial partners as part of its Changemakers program. The league often pushes those companies to use its stars in marketing campaigns, especially those who have a league marketing deal. Some have signed individual endorsement deals after the league’s run out, and Engelbert said other companies could soon get financially involved.

“I suspect we’ll have some of our huge partners step up here too as huge players come in with the followership,” she said.

One WNBA agent was strident that Clark, or any top player entering the league, would make more as a professional.

“If you’re the right type of talent, it doesn’t matter if you’re in college, the pros, in Indiana, L.A.” the agent said. “All these things help, of course. It’s not that you have to take a pay cut to go pro.”

Engelbert pointed out that several WNBA players, like A’ja Wilson, Jewell Lloyd and Arike Ogunbowale already have sizable endorsement deals.

Clark will still retain her large Instagram following, and her fan base from Iowa will likely continue to root for her. A new city — Indianapolis — will adopt her. Clark has also become such a nationally beloved brand that her marketing potential is not constrained by one market.

The most significant new business opportunity is likely to be her upcoming sneaker and apparel free agency. Clark’s deal with Nike will end after the conclusion of this college basketball season, a person briefed on the deal confirmed, a detail first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Though Clark was with Nike in college, her market was likely muted compared to what she could draw as a pro, industry insiders said. Iowa already had an apparel deal with Nike, so Clark was going to wear those sneakers on the court regardless of any individual deal she signed. And she would have been unable to wear the sneakers of another company for her record-setting feats if she signed with a company other than Nike. (LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson has a Puma endorsement even though the school wears Nike, but she cannot wear them when she plays for the Tigers.)

Clark will be unconstrained in the WNBA and she is expected to draw a significant contract for the upcoming WNBA season. Nike, Adidas and others are expected to pursue her. Multiple sources with knowledge of the sneaker industry said Clark is set to sign a deal for more than $1 million annually, which would be one of the richest among WNBA players.

“She’ll be regarded as one of the greatest gets of all time for the brand that gets her,” one sneaker company executive said.

Sara Gotfredson, who was once a marketing and sales executive at ESPN and Disney, said that brands have been shy to deploy money on NIL deals compared with what they spend in endorsements for professionals.

But some women’s college basketball players may see their popularity, and earning power, peak during those years, with a dedicated collective and local businesses ready to engage them in a market where they are one of its top athletes, then lower profiles when they reach the WNBA. That will not be true for Clark, said Gotfredson, who is now a co-founder of Trailblazing Sports Group.

“The NCAA is a great springboard for these athletes, and especially for such a superstar like Caitlin Clark,” she said. “But I don’t subscribe to the theory that the NCAA is sort of the pinnacle of these women’s careers. I think if anything she’s going to get more visibility, more brand deals, gain more popularity in the W.”

There has been little concern among her sponsors that Clark will become less marketable when she gets to the WNBA. Instead, there is intrigue and optimism that she may be able to help the league.

While ratings have improved in the WNBA over the last few seasons, they have gone up even higher in college basketball. Last year’s NCAA Tournament championship game between Iowa and LSU averaged 9.9 million viewers and was the most watched women’s college basketball game ever. The Iowa–South Carolina semifinal game drew 5.5 million viewers. WNBA Finals games last season averaged 728,000 viewers.

Attendance at her games has regularly trumped WNBA games as well. The league averaged 6,615 fans per game last season — a five-year high — while Iowa averaged 100.7 percent capacity at home with 14,998 fans per game, according to NCAA data, the second-highest in women’s college basketball. The Hawkeyes drew 55,651 fans to the school’s football stadium in October for an exhibition game — the largest attendance for a college basketball game this season — and three of the other eight most well-attended women’s college basketball games this season were at road arenas when Iowa visited Big Ten opponents.

Clark, and Iowa, have been a ratings machine this season as she chased college scoring records. Three Iowa games have been among the top 10 most-watched college basketball games this season, men’s or women’s. Sunday’s regular-season finale drew 3.39 million viewers — the sixth-highest viewership for a basketball game this season, including the NBA. A Fox executive tweeted Tuesday that women’s college basketball games have averaged more viewers than men’s games on the network this season.

Kearney said in his discussions with Engelbert, there is already interest in how often and when Clark’s games will air on nationally televised broadcasts. When she joins the WNBA, Clark will be just one of three WNBA players with a Gatorade endorsement. Engelbert has stressed to its marketing and broadcast partners that the league is trying to create household names and asks for their help, but with Clark they are getting a ready-made star.

“It’s one of those things where you get an athlete like this who is doing things that are maybe extraordinary isn’t the right word, but the people are paying attention — male, female, old young,” Kearney said. “That’s gonna carry over if she keeps doing what she’s doing. People are gonna tune in and you’re gonna see the numbers rise.”

(Top photo of Caitlin Clark: Matthew Holst / Getty Images)

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