Editor’s Note: Natasha Adair is no longer head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Delaware. She recently became head coach of the women’s basketball team at Arizona State University.
When University of Delaware women’s basketball forward, Jasmine Dickey lead her team to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Tournament championship and punched their ticket to NCAA Women’s March Madness, she curled over and buried her face in a fistful of her jersey, her long blonde ponytail pulled back from her face.
Dickey, a senior sports health major in UD’s College of Health Sciences, led all scores with 27, and grabbed 18 rebounds tying a career high. It was her first CAA championship. Although The Fightin’ Blue Hens did not win their opening round match in the women’s tournament, a highlight reel of Dickey’s performance has been shared on YouTube, Twitter, FloHoops and other social media platforms, and it got people talking. Dickey, one of the country’s leading scorers in NCAA women’s basketball, recently declared for the WNBA Draft . She has won countless awards while at Delaware, including, Sixth Woman of the Year, Most Improved Player, Team MVP and CAA Player of the Year. Her skillset is one that many college athletes have started to monetize thanks to name, image and likeness (NIL) deals. Dickey recently announced her first NIL deal with Trüth Akaline Water.
The NCAA Board of Directors formally allowed college athletes to make money off of endorsements in July, 2021. Since then tens of thousands of students from various sports and universities across the country have cashed in. Popular players from big schools, in sports like football, have scored million dollar deals. Initial reports suggest that average deals are much lower, but the ability for student athletes to make money off of their own celebrity and pair that with social media is becoming more attractive, according to UD professor Tim DeSchriver.
DeSchriver is an associate professor at UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics in the department of hospitality and sport business management. An expert in sport finance, economics and marketing with a focus on professional and collegiate athletics, he is closely watching the explosion of NIL deals. Some of his research has focused on player experience in March Madness and valuation analysis of corporate naming rights for collegiate sports venues.
“I think social media gives the athletes the ability to go directly to the consumers. So, for example, in the past, if you were an athlete and you wanted to get the word out about yourself, kind of create your own personal brand, or even bring more attention to your sport or your league, you had to go through that funnel of traditional media,” DeSchriver said.
That media, he added, pushed the narrative that they presented stories or brands that people wanted to see, which focussed heavily around men, but we are seeing that that is not the case now.
“I teach sports marketing and when we talk about women in sports, it’s a market that’s always been there, but that’s been untapped,” DeSchriver continued. “So now people are realizing the potential of women’s sport, whether it’s March Madness, the WNBA or the women’s national soccer team, they’re realizing that there’s demand for these sports. It’s like growing a plant. You must water it.”
The numbers suggest why the market might see more value in women’s college basketball. ESPN reported 4.1 million viewers for the 2021 women’s championship game between Stanford and Arizona. It was the most viewed women’s championship game since 2014. Additionally, it was the most viewed women’s Final Four weekend since 2012 and the most viewed Sweet 16 since 2013.
Recent social media outrage is one trigger for the interest that the NCAA has placed on women’s college basketball, DeSchriver said. He alluded to University of Oregon player Sedona Prince’s 2021 TikTok video illustrating the vast disparity between the women’s and men’s weight rooms and practice facilities. It showed one paltry weight post with dumb bells attached to it for women, in contrast with the men’s room, which looked like a professional sports team’s practice facility with multiple workout stations and weight lifting benches.
“The NCAA looked pretty bad last year in terms of showing the weight rooms for the men, and showing the women and it’s one dumbbell in the corner. So they’re making progress in that area, but still have a long way to go,” DeSchriver said.
In addition to highlighting increased viewership for the women’s tournament in 2021, the NCAA took notice of Prince’s video and responded to it. For the first time in history, the NCAA Division I Women’s basketball is using March Madness when marketing and branding beginning with the 2022 tournament. It will end with the Final Four in Minneapolis, Minnesota from April 1-3. For the first time the women’s tournament hosted a First Four and the tournament’s total number of participating teams was expanded to 68, like the men’s tournament.
NCAA organizers said this move was a big step toward rectifying gender inequity between the women’s and men’s tournament, which has traditionally garnered the most attention from the organization, fans and media.
“I would say it’s still not equal but they’re trying to get that gap to be as small as possible,” DeSchriver said. “All the women’s games are on ABC/ESPN, either over the air, cable, or streamed, so that’s great that they’re getting that exposure…. there’s still more work to be done, but they’re heading in the right direction.”
The 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It sent emotional and financial shockwaves to colleges across the country. In 2021, the tournament was scaled back. The entire women’s tournament was played in San Antonio, Texas without fans in the audience. This year, fans will come back and celebrate female athletes, and outside of the seeding being affected by canceled games due to COVID-19 earlier in the season, everything else has fallen into place.
Branding March Madness for the women’s tournament is part of a bigger push on multiple fronts. Corporate investments have increased drastically. Like DeSchriver said ESPN will air the entire women’s tournament through their assortment of networks. New advertising opportunities have presented themselves. The NCAA has invested in more resources for female athletes from training facilities to support staff needed for events and swag that athletes get for participating.
As far as NIL deals go, women’s college basketball players are starting to find solid ground.
According to Opendorse, a leading technology provider in the athletic endorsement industry, women’s basketball is second behind college football in NIL compensation. From July 1, 2021 to Dec. 31, women’s college basketball accounted for 26.2 percent of total compensation, which was 8 points higher than men’s basketball. A more up to date study, which tracked deals through Feb. 2022, shows that women’s college basketball is still second behind football at almost 19 percent.
University of Arizona forward, senior Cate Reese, who helped the Wildcats reach the women’s final last year, recently signed an NIL deal with Newegg, a California based online retailer for PC hardware, gaming equipment and consumer electronics. Reese, who was named the 2022 Naismith Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year Midseason Team, will represent Newegg during the women’s tournament.
Closer to home, players, such as UD sophomore guard and entrepreneurship major, Tyi Skinner, a student in the Lerner College, is leveraging her entrepreneurial spirit with her athletic mindset to launch her own clothing brand Dif3rnt Breed, which can be found on Instagram.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
DeSchriver can appreciate this moment in women’s basketball and women’s sports. There are more firsts happening, and news headlines tell the tale. At UD, Natasha Adair became the first African American head coach for women’s basketball in the school’s history in 2017. In 2016 Christine Rawak was named director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation services at UD. She is the sixth person to hold that title since it was established in 1940, and the first woman to do so.
As DeSchriver said, women are being featured on major networks playing a sport that they love, and people who look like them get to enjoy watching them play. There are female coaches for men’s and women’s professional and collegiate sports. All-female officiating crews have called sports games, and female sports commentators are featured analysts for major sporting events.
“The idea of young girls having role models, whether it’s on the court, being referees, being commentators, even outside of sport, if a woman wants to get into business and sees a woman who’s the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, that the concept of young people having role models who have paved the way for them, it gives them hope that they can achieve the same thing, and hopefully even more.”