With women’s college basketball stars Caitlin Clark, Cameron Brink, Angel Reese, and Paige Bueckers announcing their decisions about either heading to the WNBA or using their additional year of COVID eligibility next season, one thing is certain: The women’s game has transformed since this cohort first stepped onto the hardwood at the start of the 2020-21 season.

Viewership of college basketball is up: Iowa’s Big Ten title win peaked at 4.45 million viewers, becoming CBS’s most-watched women’s basketball game in 25 years. Fans are showing up: A record-setting crowd of 55,646 watched Clark at an outdoor game in late 2023. And there are an unprecedented number of income streams for women playing basketball in the U.S., especially with lucrative NIL deals now available.

Contrary to popular myths, that money doesn’t disappear when players turn pro – either in the WNBA, Athletes Unlimited (AU), or overseas.


“You’re being endorsed by a brand for a long-term contract,” Atlanta Dream star Haley Jones said at a recent AU press conference. “Everything I did, and I do, I still have the majority of those contracts with me now. Then I take on my WNBA base salary. Then being in the W, being in the Atlanta market, then you start getting more endorsements.”

Translation: There’s greater opportunity in women’s basketball now, at every level, and it’s not going away. That’s changed how young athletes coming up view their career prospects and also how veterans see the game.

theScore collected the perspectives of current AU basketball players on the way women’s hoops has changed, and what they see in its future.

NIL’s impact

“NIL came about heading into my junior year of college, which was really exciting,” Jones said. “But honestly, nobody had any clue as to what that really meant. At that point in time, there was no legislation around it.” She remembered the initial confusion about NCAA eligibility when signing deals. But much of that early confusion has since cleared – it’s obvious athletes now can make real money while playing in college.

Caitlin Clark has the highest NIL valuation of all women’s college basketball athletes Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images

Throughout her tenure with the Hawkeyes, Clark’s NIL valuation soared to north of $3 million, while LSU’s Reese is currently sitting at $1.8 million. They’ll both head into the WNBA with brand-building momentum.

As stars with branded deals graduate to the WNBA, they could attract more corporate interest in the league as a whole, potentially meaning more money for everyone. Based on the league’s collective bargaining agreement, players receive 50% of the league’s incremental revenue, but only when the league reaches certain targets it doesn’t disclose. Those revenue targets jump by 20% each year, making additional corporate sponsorship a significant win league-wide.

Haley Jones (left) and Monique Billings of the Atlanta Dream Mitchell Leff / Getty Images

“I think I got to see a lot of the growth in the NIL space,” Jones said. “Then I think, moving from collegiate to then being a professional athlete, especially moving into the WNBA, I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna lose money when you get to the league,’ when that isn’t the case. Those deals are going to just carry over and then you get to add on your yearly salary.”

Brand building through social media

“With social media, you’re allowed to build your brand so much more,” says Maddy Siegrist, an AU athlete who was selected third overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft by the Dallas Wings. “There were professional players 10 years ago but it wasn’t as easy to access. Now you can watch a player one time, go on Instagram, and learn about them, become a follower.”

LSU’s Angel Reese is social media’s third most-followed college athlete – man or woman Ben Solomon / NCAA Photos / Getty Images

Reese and LSU teammate Flau’Jae Johnson leveraged this strategy to become two of the most-followed collegiate women’s basketball players, with 5.3 million and 3.1 million respectively, across all social media platforms.

Siegrist sees that trend getting younger and younger. “You’re going to see athletes coming up who fans have followed since high school,” she says. That helps the NIL opportunities for today’s college athletes and the pros, too. “It just gives everybody an opportunity to make money … it’s just been taken to such a new level with sponsorship opportunities. It really allows athletes to elevate their platform.”

Offseason competition and development

“I always said, women’s basketball is like evolution: it’s just growing and growing,” Angel McCoughtry, two-time Olympic gold medalist for Team USA in 2012 and 2016, recalls. “I remember during my younger years, there was nothing (in the offseason).”

Maddy Siegrist during the 2024 Athletes Unlimited basketball season Jade Hewitt / Athletes Unlimited

She contrasted that to now: Athletes Unlimited gives 40 players the chance to compete for a $1-million bonus pool in addition to a base salary that varies but averages to about $25,000 for four weeks of play. Both WNBA pros and former college players looking for a development opportunity compete.

“(AU) is an opportunity that I didn’t have when I first came into the league,” said Lexie Brown, a two-time defending WNBA champion. “I was a player that had aspirations outside of basketball when I was still in college, and that just wasn’t something that I was able to do early in my career. I did go play three seasons overseas. It was cool, it was fine. But I just knew that there was so much more I wanted to do, domestically and off the court in the community. It is filling those gaps.”

That offseason competition isn’t happening in an echo chamber, as ESPN will broadcast six games out of 24 from the 2024 AU basketball season, with the other 18 available on the WNBA app. “That’s huge for AU,” Brown said. “That’s just showing you the growth in coverage these girls are going to get. This is the offseason and they’re on ESPN.”

Mentality change

Angel McCoughtry in the 2024 Athletes Unlimited season Jade Hewitt / Athletes Unlimited

“I will say that young girls understand more that there’s opportunity just playing sports – it’s not just about being a WNBA player,” McCoughtry said. “You don’t have to be an Olympic gold medalist. Companies want to hire people who play sports. They’re learning that there’s more than just being a pro – I can be an agent, I can be a commentator, the NBA is hiring more women than ever. So I think with those aspects, and so many opportunities, they’re seeing that, ‘Oh, there is opportunity in sports outside of just being this pro athlete.”

Brown summed it up: “More athletes, especially women athletes, are not putting themselves in a box anymore.”