How much has NIL impacted women’s college basketball recruiting?
Editor’s note: Over the past month, The Athletic has spoken with more than 30 women’s college basketball coaches about an array of topics, from tournament expansion to athletic directors to X’s and O’s. These coaches, who hail from power conferences and high mid-majors, were granted anonymity to allow them to speak openly without fear of retribution from their programs or the NCAA. Throughout the week, we’re sharing coaches’ thoughts on the most pressing issues in their sport. Though not every response is included, answers represent all opinions expressed.
When the NCAA approved its first landmark national NIL policy in July 2021, everyone pondered what the college sports landscape would look like after this seismic shift: How much would athletes make? How would it transform sports? Would college sports still be amateur?
Nearly two years later, most of those questions persist.
How much are athletes making? It’s hard to say unless the athlete is open to disclosing financial details, and most are not. Some women’s basketball players have signed major brand partnerships, like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (Nike, Hy-Vee, Topps), Stanford’s Haley Jones (Nike, The Players Tribune, SoFi), LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson (Puma, Meta), UCLA’s Kiki Rice (Jordan Brand, Dove), UConn’s Paige Bueckers (Gatorade, Crocs, Bose), South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston (Bose, Crocs, Orangetheory), Miami’s Haley and Hanna Cavinder (Under Armour, Victoria’s Secret) and UConn’s Azzi Fudd (NBPA, Nerf). But the majority of women’s college basketball players aren’t raking in those kinds of deals.
Though those top athletes have secured deals worth upwards of six figures, the average women’s basketball player earns significantly less. Per data gathered by INFLCR, during the first year of NIL, the average deal for a women’s basketball guard was $1,441, while the average deals for centers ($503) and forwards ($390) were even less.
Some schools also have collectives — registered groups of donors — that have deals with revenue teams or hope to have deals with those teams. This season, South Carolina’s collective — Garnet Trust — signed women’s basketball players to deals of at least $25,000 and Iowa’s Swarm collective signed players to $15,000 NIL deals. UCLA coach Cori Close has said her goal is to have $50,000 NIL deals in place for each of her women’s basketball players next season.
How has NIL transformed sports? For some athletes and sports, very little. For others, significantly. For the NCAA, entirely.
Is college sports still amateur? This seems to differ from athlete to athlete, even within each sport, and probably depends more on one’s definition of amateur. For sports with less exposure, not a lot has changed. But for high-visibility athletes who are signing agents and inking brand partnerships, it certainly feels a lot more like the professional ranks. For most women’s basketball players, it’s somewhere in between.
But talk long enough with women’s college basketball coaches and NIL always comes up — their questions, frustrations and fears. As coaches search for and break down every advantage available to their competitors, NIL is now a part of the equation.
So for the fourth question of our anonymous coaches’ poll, we asked not how much NIL has impacted their jobs but how much, less than two years into the NIL era, it has impacted recruiting.
How much has NIL changed recruiting?
HOW MUCH? PERCENT
Not at all
NOT AT ALL
• “It’s been tough because we have not capitalized on it with a collective yet that is really feeding into our program. And I don’t think that our local companies and alumni companies have stepped up for women’s basketball for us. … I think that you need a game plan with a collective for sports like women’s basketball. Schools that don’t have that game plan for a collective where every kid is capitalizing on a collective, it is going to hurt you in the recruiting process.”
• “For us, as of now, it hasn’t changed a lot. It hasn’t been as big a deal. But I don’t think we’ll know where we are for another two or three years when we say, ‘Oh, yeah, we didn’t get that kid because we don’t have as robust an NIL program.’ I don’t think you want to compromise who you are, but we’re not going to beat some of the football schools, so if that’s what a kid wants and it’s their No. 1 priority, we’re probably not the school for them.”
• “Some players will literally come out and say, ‘NIL doesn’t matter to me.’ But it’s becoming such a part of what other schools sell: ‘I know we can offer this or we can help you get this.’ It’s definitely a part of it.”
Considering the ways NIL has been described — a seismic shift, a landmark move, a new era of college sports — it’s wild that some coaches say it hasn’t changed recruiting at all.
However, perhaps that’s not as surprising as one would think. The haves and have-nots exist historically in college basketball, and the have-nots are accustomed to the disparity. Now collectives and NIL deals are just a part of that reality. Throughout time, some players have opted to go against the grain, choosing a lesser-known school or picking a conference that might not have as much to offer, so it also shouldn’t be surprising that in the NIL era some athletes will choose a school/conference without a robust NIL offering.
• “When I talk to my colleagues in men’s basketball and football, we’re certainly not seeing the level of impact that it has had on the men’s side. I am keeping my eyes open about the future. I suspect it will become more impactful.”
• “We don’t even have a shot with kids who are getting mysterious $300,000 payouts from (a school). Where does that money come from? I don’t know. Is it legal? It’s supposed to be. But I don’t know. And what are the rules, really? So, it’s hard to know. Everyone’s so tight-lipped about it. Every state has different rules. There’s no federal legislation. It feels like the wild, Wild West. So, to me, it can only get worse.”
• “It’s part of the discussion sometimes with some players, but I don’t think it is the most important part of the discussion in the women’s game right now.”
• “It depends on the type of kid you’re recruiting. So it starts there. Some kids are not driven by that, and others are. The school I’m at, we’re not really an NIL-sexy school. We use NIL more for retention of players rather than the recruitment of.”
About one-third of coaches said they felt NIL had impacted recruiting somewhat, with many of them citing how much more impactful it is elsewhere — either at other schools or in other sports at their universities. That level of comparison can be helpful for some coaches. After all, while those top players are signing big brand partnerships, the majority of players aren’t, and the majority of high school recruits understand they’re not going to be signing the same kinds of deals Bueckers and Jones have.
Coaches mentioned it has been more of a player-by-player situation, and like the coaches who said “not at all,” players who are opting to attend a school that’s not “NIL sexy” likely are less driven by the NIL deals than players who might be opting for a program that has an active collective.
• “NIL was supposed to be Paige Bueckers being able to market herself, not the school giving you $25,000 to show up someplace three times at some event.”
• “You hear rumors that this person is offering this, this school is offering that, but no one really knows because there’s no transparency. Before, you knew, ‘This is a full scholarship,’ and you knew what that was. But now it’s a full scholarship plus what? And you’re relying on AAU coaches and kids to tell you the truth, which isn’t always realistic.”
• “There’s an expectation during the recruiting process from a lot of players, not all. As much as that, it’s the AAU coaches and the people who are guiding these young kids. They’re telling them that they need to get money.”
• “Now players are expecting money in addition to their scholarships. … If you can’t offer money, then you really can’t be in a conversation with some of these kids.”
• “When you’re talking about top-tier talent, we’re not getting many questions about majors or even facilities. It’s become probably the first topic on the list, in terms of: Are you gonna be in the (NIL) game or are you not gonna be in the (NIL) game?”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that these are the coaches who are going after top recruits or players on top AAU teams who are expecting NIL or collective deals.
That’s clear because if AAU coaches, parents and athletes are asking the coach about NIL deals, that’s collective money. College coaches aren’t supposed to be part of the NIL world, and when it comes to players who sign the largest deals, that’s done by a player and their representation and agent. Where coaches might have a better understanding is when a collective has signed deals with an entire team or when a school’s collective has been especially active in signing deals with the star players in the athletic department.
In the “somewhat” and “a lot” categories, we heard from several coaches who still feel they are in the dark about the rules and regulations around NIL. With the lack of transparency — because the larger deals are usually brokered by agents and the collective deals aren’t supposed to go through coaches — college coaches are left to find out information secondhand through players or their parents.
• “The transfer portal and NIL have intersected at a time so that it has legalized tampering.”
• “Every recruit, coach and parent is asking about it in recruiting. It used to be: ‘How will I fit in? What’s my opportunity? What are the academics? What’s the social life?’ Now NIL, for some kids, trumps all.”
• “It’s pay for play. … NIL is certainly a question that every parent is asking: ‘How much will my child make if she comes here?’ Ultimately, the coaches aren’t supposed to have any bearing in terms of what these kids are making. We’re not supposed to help in getting them deals or the relationships (to make deals). We’re not supposed to touch this stuff, and yet, there are places out there that are setting these deals up.”
Several of the quotes that landed in the “a lot” category certainly could fall into this one as well, given any coach’s interpretation.
However, the coaches who chose the “completely” category used some key words that separated them from coaches in the other categories: “tampering” and “pay to play.” NIL proponents often said because deals were meant to be player-driven, it would never lead to those things. But some coaches now will push back by saying it wouldn’t be like this if guardrails were in place, but that hasn’t really happened because so much of the NCAA’s NIL legislation has been reactionary.
Coaches in this group also said every parent and every player was asking about NIL. That likely speaks to the caliber of player they’re recruiting and the expectations that exist for top players, as well as the understanding that most top athletic departments have collectives setting up team deals.
A consistent thought among coaches who landed in all four categories, even for those who said NIL was impacting recruiting “not at all” or “somewhat,” was that NIL is going to become more of a factor as time goes on. Though it’s often thought that changes in college sports happen slowly, two years into the NIL era, it’s fair to say this was a shift that came in suddenly, has an impact and is only going to become more prominent.