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How Social Media has Elevated Women’s College Basketball

Written by Sebastian Schroeter

Account Executive

The Men’s and Women’s NCAA National Championships just wrapped up a couple of weeks ago with exciting matchups between Purdue and the University of Connecticut on the men’s side, and South Carolina and Iowa on the women’s side. These were highly anticipated match-ups, and they lived up to hype. But this year, college basketball set a new precedent; the Women’s National Championship (18.9 million viewers) game grossed just over 4 million more live viewers than the Men’s National Championship game (14.8 million viewers), according to the Wall Street Journal. Caitlin Clark played a large role in this spike in the viewership of women’s college basketball over the past two years, but it can also be attributed to a larger trend: NIL and social media. 

For those who do not know, NIL stands for name, image, and likeness, and athletes can use it to associate with brands for sponsorships in order to make a profit (e.g. billboards, television ads, etc.). High-profile athletes in the world of college basketball are grossing millions of followers on Instagram and millions of dollars in NIL deals. The NCAA allowed states to decide whether athletes can profit from it in 2021. The landscape of college sports as a whole has changed drastically due to the introduction of NIL, especially because of the methods used to promote the sponsorships athletes have made with large brands. High-profile athletes in the world of college basketball are grossing millions of followers on Instagram and millions of dollars in NIL deals. Paige Bueckers, a guard at the University of Connecticut and one of the most talented players in women’s basketball right now, is a great example of how athletes can leverage their combination of talent and social media presence to create opportunities with large corporations. She has accumulated over 1.5 million followers on Instagram since joining the platform in 2017. She has been able to become a sponsored athlete for companies such as Nike, Gatorade, Bose, StockX, and Chegg. She has also done promotions on her social media with CashApp, US Army, Dunkin’ Donuts, Taco Bell, and more. She is one of multiple athletes that have large social media followings that result in extensive lists of sponsorship deals amounting to millions of dollars (others include Angel Reese, Hailey van Lith, Flau’jae Johnson, Haley Cavinder, Juju Watkins, Cameron Brink, and more). 

While it is important to recognize that these are all talented athletes, social media has become a major financial player in the decisions these athletes make. One major decision it impacts is what schools these athletes decide to attend. Administrative NIL support is a major element of decision-making for athletes. According to Sportico, “There are currently over 225 NIL collectives dedicated to Division I schools, with the broad majority of them handling the operation on their own.” These collectives aid with various responsibilities in the NIL sphere, mainly negotiating the terms of the sponsorship contracts. If a school can offer resources and connections for a potential recruit to cash out while playing basketball, it is a tempting offer. It also creates an ethical dilemma within college recruiting, as larger schools can woo athletes with the prospect of making more money there than at other prospective schools. 

It can also impact how long they play college basketball. On the men’s side, many players depart college early to make more money in the NBA. But the WNBA doesn’t present that same opportunity. It is a younger league that doesn’t get nearly the same amount of visibility as its counterpart, and that can influence athletes to stay however long their NCAA eligibility lasts. We have established that the highest earners make millions of dollars from NIL deals, but the average salary ahead of the 2023 WNBA Draft was $147,745. If they can play competitive basketball in college and make more money, why would they leave?

All of this is to say that these athletes are the cream of the crop in women’s basketball, as well as in the social media world. This season has set a precedent for the traction and cultural impact that women’s college basketball players can have, on and off the court. However, this is a relatively new phenomenon. This spike in viewership of women’s college basketball only began over the past couple of months, and it was mainly spurred by one amazing athlete that has set records on the court. We will have to see if any of these developments continue to trend upwards in the social media realm as well, or if this was just a one-time scenario. I’m hoping this is a more consistent trend, but only time will tell.

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