Most times when athletes announce their decision to go pro, no one wonders if they’re taking a step down in the world.

The elite college basketball players who will be drafted into the WNBA Monday night (7:30 ET, ESPN), including Randallstown native Angel Reese, will enjoy the culmination of a lifelong dream. They’ve never known a world without the WNBA, which began play in 1997. But that hasn’t stopped idle speculation that they should have stayed in school, where women athletes have cashed in on extraordinary commercial opportunities.

Reese falls in the crux of this debate. “Bayou Barbie” was one of the most marketable NCAA athletes this past season, with name, image and likeness deals with Reebok, Beats By Dre, Tampax and ZOA Energy drinks. On3 gave her NIL valuation at $1.8 million, easily in the top 10 of all NCAA athletes, men or women, last season.

Her final game saw her play against Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, drawing 12.3 million viewers (the rating record lasted less than a week). She’s being drafted into a league whose rookie wage scale pays top draft picks $76,535 in their first year, and whose deciding Game 4 of the WNBA Finals peaked with 1.3 million watching.

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It may seem that Reese and Clark — who gave up added years of eligibility to join the WNBA — might be leaving for pastures that aren’t quite as green.

But think about the other possibility: We could see Reese and others in her generation start to raise the tide of women’s pro basketball.

Scott Rosner, director of Columbia University’s sports management program, also sees an extraordinary opportunity for the WNBA. While the bright lights (and sky-high ratings) of March Madness make outsiders question if the top stars should want to take one more year in college, Rosner sees athletes who have built dynamic, powerful brands that are now going with them to the pros.

Men’s college basketball also used to do this: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were all well-known players going into the NBA who had played in high-stakes, highly viewed games. Now that the men’s game allows players to go pro earlier and the talent isn’t so stockpiled in the NCAA ranks, the men’s game doesn’t have so much brand-building. But the women’s game does. Rosner draws a parallel that many others have: the Reese-Clark rivalry could be for the WNBA what Magic-Bird was for the NBA in the ‘80s.

“It’s really part of the story of women’s basketball this year that you have this opportunity for stars to grow,” he told The Banner. “The presence of the rivalry has really allowed them both to be elevated. It’s not binary, it’s not one or the other. It’s the combination — the ability to have them really to grow, that has made it special.”

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The salaries, of course, are not going to match their NBA counterparts, but wondering if stars like Clark and Reese are taking a “pay cut” is pretty imprecise. Are all of these stars’ sponsors suddenly going away? Not bloody likely — Reese’s draft declaration in Vogue magazine is a sign of how high her star has risen, not just as a player, but a celebrity. As good as she is at grabbing double-doubles, she’s also amassed 2.9 million followers on Instagram and 3 million on TikTok (Purdue star Zach Edey, by comparison, has fewer than 100,000 followers on Instagram).

Male athletes still receive a disproportionate amount of NIL dollars, Rosner said, but he isn’t surprised that female athletes have capitalized on the ability to build powerful brands and make money.

“We’ve seen it before with Olympic athletes and other women’s sports athletes,” Rosner said. “It’s not groundbreaking, but it definitely has expanded.”

One question is how these incoming athletes will fare in a league that is still scrapping for attendance and viewership. But Clark, especially, figures to make a huge economic impact: If you want to watch her play the Washington Mystics on June 7, the cheapest available tickets on Ticketmaster are already $349.

The league is banking on their stardom carrying over, especially as they negotiate a new media rights deal in 2025 — WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said last week in a CNBC interview that the league is hoping to double the value of their previous deal.

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“All these players are coming in with big viewership and followership,” she said. “So we’re hoping we’ll capitalize on that in the WNBA. … I think we’re setting up the league not just for the next three to five years with the next media rights deal, but the next 30.”

The biggest hurdle for Reese could be keeping a roster spot in the hyper-competitive league. There are only 12 teams, with 12 roster spots apiece. Rookies are routinely cut from rosters, even good ones. Reese is projected as a first-round pick on Monday night, but it’s not exactly clear how her game will translate after an All-American season at LSU.

“She has room to grow in her game — she has to work on her jump shot,” ESPN analyst Andraya Carter said this weekend on “Good Morning America.” “But she has a high ceiling. She has a high motor. So there’s a lot of upside to where Angel Reese is gonna go in the WNBA, we’re just not sure which team is going to draft her.”

If Reese can succeed on the court, given what she’s done so far, it’s likely that she’ll succeed off of it as well. Metrics, especially viewership ratings, will rise and fall, and Rosner notes that progression for leagues like the WNBA isn’t always linear. But he thinks women’s basketball is on the rise.

“I tend to think we’re more in a part of something larger than something smaller,” Rosner said. “I’m certainly hopeful that this is the case, given the evidence surrounding it. This is part of a longer-term movement of women’s sports to a higher profile. The net is incredibly positive and long overdue.”

Instead of wondering if college stars are going to take a hit by going to the WNBA, maybe we should be wondering if they’re hitting the league at just the right time to take it with them as the tide lifts.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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