First appeared in BOXSCORE
By Aron Solomon
This is really a story about Angel Reese, though it won’t seem like it for a while because it’s first a story about a badly broken business model that’s being fixed – specifically, that of the WNBA. The WNBA has been discussing expansion plans for some time, but they have not yet announced any new teams. The league had hoped to add one or two new expansion teams by the end of 2022, but they will not even come close to meeting that deadline.
The WNBA is in the process of evaluating potential expansion cities, including Nashville, Oakland, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, and Toronto. The league is working diligently and far too slowly to make sure that new ownership groups are set up for success and that the league is financially stable before expanding. The league is also considering the logistics of adding new teams, such as travel and scheduling.
At the same time, firmly in the wake of Brittney Griner having been taken as a political prisoner in Russia and the WNBA’s new prioritization rules, fewer WNBA players are playing overseas in the off-season, thereby limiting their ability to earn a good living playing the game they love.
The end result, as highlighted by this season’s WNBA roster cuts that began that over the weekend, is not enough team roster spaces for the immense talent that wants to and should be playing in the league.
Enter NIL, which refers to the ability of college athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness. This means that athletes can receive compensation for endorsements, social media posts, personal appearances, and other activities that use their name, image, or likeness.
These changes have given athletes more control over their personal brand and the ability to earn income while still competing in college sports. More simply put, it empowers student-athletes such as Angel Reese to get paid.
“NIL has created an entirely new landscape in college sports. By creating a legal route for student-athletes to earn potentially big money while still in school, NIL has changed not only everything about the business of college sports, but has created more options for those nearing the end of their college career,” explained Nancianne Aydelotte, a New Jersey lawyer who co-founded njladylawyers.com.
Now we can talk about Angel Reese.
Aside from being the protagonist in this now-iconic image, from this year’s March Madness, Reese not only helped lead LSU to the national championship, she set herself up for a massive payday.
As I discussed this week on ESPN, what Reese has done is not only empower herself, but solidify a net-new path from the highest level of women’s sports to whatever comes next.
Reese, who has been dubbed the “Bayou Barbie,” is considered one of the best players in college basketball. She was a unanimous first-team All-American selection in her junior season, leading LSU to its first national championship, where she was Most Outstanding Player.
She wasted no time in monetizing, showing an entire nation of young women and men how NIL should be done. Reese signed not one or three or five, but seventeen NIL sponsorship deals with brands – first with brands such as Amazon and Coach, and now with Mercedes-Benz and, this week, Sports Illustrated, in signing a deal to be in the 2023 SI Swimsuit issue (one of only two college athletes to be in what is honestly a distasteful fossil of a thing at this point, but a fossil that generates a ton of revenue).
With an NIL valuation quickly climbing to $2 million per year with her most recent deals, Reece is closing a serious loophole in the business of women’s basketball.
Unlike the men, who can enter the NBA draft one year out from high school, women college basketball players cannot leave early for the WNBA unless they meet certain eligibility requirements. According to the WNBA rules, players must be at least 22 years old during the calendar year of the draft, have completed their college eligibility, have graduated from a four-year college, or be four years removed from high school.
Today, this rule makes a lot of sense, as the WNBA can’t even accommodate the many fantastic players who stayed in college and earned their degree.
But the ability to stay in college and earn a decent living, even if not at the level that Angel Reese will, speaks to the fundamental fairness of NIL for college students who excel in sports.
Yet as great as NIL is, for women’s professional basketball, this needs to be a stop-gap measure.
The WNBA needs to get it together and expand. There is far too much high-level talent that won’t play in the WNBA this season that should. This is something the league needs to fix this year or they’re going to lose the amazing momentum women’s basketball now has – because the current numbers are truly staggering.
This year’s NCAA women’s final game set a record with 9.9 million viewers, surpassing the previous record of 5.2 million set in 2002. The two Final Four contests averaged 4.5 million viewers, a 65% increase from last year
The 2023 Women’s Final Four was ESPN’s most-viewed Final Four weekend on record, averaging 6.5 million viewers. The women’s finale aired live on ABC, ESPN, and streamed, marking the first time the championship game was televised on a broadcast network since 1995. The women’s tournament also set an attendance record of 357,542 – all in all, massive numbers that show no signs of slowing down.
This is THE moment – a truly iconic one – for the WNBA to get out of its own way and clear the path for more great players to play professional basketball in North America. It is an equally iconic moment for student-athletes such as Angel Reese to clear the path for students to stay in school and earn money for helping to grow the game.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.