TN50 - driving the next 50 years of growth in women's sports. Presented by Axios and Deep Blue
Updated Apr 23, 2024 - Business

WNBA legend Sue Bird says NIL made athletes double as brand champions

Sue Bird speaks at TN 50: Business of Women's Sports Summit in New York

Sue Bird speaks at TN50: The Business of Women's Sports Summit in New York on Tuesday.

WNBA legend Sue Bird said Tuesday that "athletes aren't just working on their game" as they navigate the evolving NIL landscape. They're "working on their brands."

Why it matters: The NCAA's adoption of NIL has dramatically changed the college sports landscape, allowing students to make millions off of their "name, image and likeness" through brand deals and sponsorships.

  • But brands, athletes and coaches are still working to navigate the new landscape, said Cori Close, UCLA Bruins head coach.
  • "Brands don't quite know how to enter into this NIL space and I think there's incredible potential," Close told Bird at TN50: The Business of Women's Sports Summit, produced by Axios and Deep Blue Sports + Entertainment.
  • "I think there's so much potential that has not been tapped into in the college space on that sort of team dynamic."

Driving the news: Close also said that navigating the NIL landscape has "completely" changed how she spends her day to day.

  • "You're creating young entrepreneurs and female entrepreneurs," she said.
Panel at TN50 in New York
Coquese Washington (L), Kiki Rice, Cori Close, Aliyah Boston and Sue Bird speak on stage at TN50: The Business of Women's Sports Summit, produced by Axios and Deep Blue Sports + Entertainment on April 23.

Zoom in: Aliyah Boston, WNBA all-star and rookie of the year, also said that "the biggest misconception about NIL is that it's basically your WNBA salary."

  • "Brands want to tap into the WNBA side, the professional side, and I've been able to live that out," said Boston, who's on the Indiana Fever and has an NIL deal with Adidas.

Kiki Rice, who plays on the UCLA women's basketball team, said that when she considers brand partnerships, "a lot of it is about making sure that my values align with the brand's values."

The big picture: The NCAA in 2021 lifted its ban against athletes making money from sponsorship and endorsement deals.

  • College athletes have made millions off of NIL deals since 2021, but its implementation has not been without challenges.
  • More than two dozen states have passed NIL laws, creating a patchwork approach to how college athletes strike such deals and also opening up the NCAA to lawsuits over its ability to enforce the rules.
  • Axios is coproducing a documentary series, "The Money Game," which will explore NIL deals in college sports.

The bottom line: Coquese Washington, the women's basketball head coach at Rutgers University, said that women's basketball has evolved "in a lot of ways" in recent years.

  • "With the WNBA, more young women, more girls, they want to be pros, they want to be professional sports broadcasters, they want to be coaches, they want to be GMs, they look at women's basketball as a career to be involved in, that's significantly changed from the early years."
  • But Close emphasized she has guardrails when navigating potential deals.
  • For her, it's a pass if any potential relationship "would compromise the values of our program or not represent our university and equality."

Go deeper: Major college conferences team up on federal NIL legislation

TN50: The Business of Women's Sports Summit is an event focused on the growing marketing and investment dollars in women's sports. The event, produced by Axios and Deep Blue Sports + Entertainment, features top female athletes, sports leaders and investors in the women's sports industry.

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