Over the summer, Faith Masonius set out to define what she was worth. For the past year, she’d fumbled about in the dark of a new world, eager to profit off her name, image and likeness but uncertain of her value. So the senior forward asked someone who might have a better idea: her sister Grace, a hairstylist.
“She does pricings all the time,” Masonius explained Wednesday inside the Xfinity Center, where the second-seeded Terps were practicing for Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Holy Cross. Masonius had already taken advantage of the 2021 Supreme Court ruling allowing student-athletes to be compensated for endorsements, social media posts and more. But with more brands interested in partnerships, Masonius realized she should establish a baseline rate for future deals. She would be providing a service, like any other, and needed to put a price on her time and talent.
Welcome to the new normal in College Park. As women’s college basketball becomes big business, more and more teams and players are making their own. If the 2021 women’s tournament, with its inadequate facilities and meager amenities, became a referendum on the NCAA’s gender equity issues, this year’s tournament could herald the next wave of corporate investment in the sport’s biggest names — and also its smaller ones.
ESPN, which broadcasts every game of the 68-team tournament, has sold out its advertising inventory for the event. Automobile manufacturer Buick has launched a tournament-long advertising campaign featuring stars like South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. And Masonius, who averages 6.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game for Maryland, spent her day off Tuesday producing sponsored content for three companies.
“Finally,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said of the emergence of NIL opportunities across the sport. “They put in so much hard work behind the scenes and can’t go and get jobs when they’re out there training and putting in the amount of hours and sacrifices. It’s just been really cool to see.”
March could be especially bountiful. According to Opendorse, a company that Maryland and other schools have partnered with to help generate endorsement opportunities for student-athletes, women’s college basketball players earned 10.2% of all NIL compensation processed by its platform from July 2021 through last month. Only football players (55.1%) and men’s basketball players (20.6%) earned more.
Jason Belzer, the founder of Student Athlete NIL, a firm that works with brands and schools, said he’s seen a “very clear uptick” in the volume of recent NIL deals compared to those at this point in recent women’s basketball seasons.
“March, obviously, is a unique month for basketball in the United States,” he said. “You can see that bigger brands are becoming more comfortable with NIL deals because of the fact that there are so many that are popping up.”
Sometimes the opportunities are team-branded. On Monday, Maryland promoted its “Shirzees” — T-shirts made to look like jerseys — on Under Armour’s online store. (The retail cost of a red Shirzee with the name and number of star senior wing Diamond Miller: $45, plus shipping. Players do get an undisclosed percentage of profits from the sale.)
Other times, the NIL opportunities can be a little more boutique. Wing Brinae Alexander, a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt, has T-shirts and sweatshirts with her likeness licensed through a local apparel company, as well as a personal store with her own collection of branded clothing. Standout sophomore wing Shyanne Sellers, the begoggled daughter of former NBA center Brad Sellers, has partnered with Woxer, a women’s underwear company, and is hopeful about eventually securing a sports-goggle-related deal.
“I think the opportunities are everywhere,” said Grayson Wagner, Maryland’s first-year director of NIL services. He still finds himself reminding companies that, after decades of bumping up against the NCAA’s principles of amateurism, it’s now OK to pay college players.
“For the last 20, 30 years, we’ve told them, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t pay a student-athlete. You can’t give a student-athlete a piece of pizza. You can’t do any of that,’” he said. “And now we’re like, ‘Hey, student-athletes, you can work with them. So go for it.’ ”
It helps to have clout. Social media, Masonius said, “is the new world now.” As part of a recent partnership with the footwear company Steve Madden, she posted photos Tuesday of her wearing a pair of the designer’s shoes for her 21,000-plus Instagram followers, and a video of her picking out an outfit for the shoes for her 33,000-plus TikTok followers.
Masonius, who has a dedicated email address for NIL opportunities, compared the day-to-day management to a second job. “It’s literally like having a little business on top of being an athlete and a student,” she said. “And sometimes it is a lot.”
“It comes down to how much work they want to put into it,” Frese said. “There’s some student-athletes that want to do a lot of posts and appearances and make their money that way — and then others, maybe not so much. So I think it’s unique to each student-athlete.”
The range of opportunities can vary as widely as the pedigree of teams in the NCAA Tournament itself. College sports website On3, which uses an algorithm to calculate student-athletes’ NIL valuations, estimates that 15 women’s basketball players have a combined “brand” and “roster” value of over $200,000. Star LSU forward Angel Reese, a former St. Frances and Terps standout who’s worked with McDonald’s, Bose and luxury fashion brand Coach, ranks No. 6 overall in the sport ($371,000 valuation).
According to Opendorse, the average compensation for a women’s basketball guard through February was $2,860 per deal. Sellers said Frese likes to joke with the team that they make “so much NIL money,” but on the school’s NIL platform, video shoutouts and social media posts from Maryland’s less-touted players can cost as little as $11. Every dollar counts; these are college students with bills to pay, from car payments to vacation expenses. Masonius and Sellers see real value in their NIL deals, just as experts see value for the brands themselves.
“We believe that student-athletes are the greatest grassroots influencers of all time,” Belzer said. “If you go into any city or town in the United States and you poll every person in that town and say, ‘Who is the most relevant or known person in that town right now?’ it’s almost always going to be the college athlete that’s playing at the state university, right? And so that’s valuable.”
Said Sellers: “Social media these days, when you see someone that’s good on the court, especially for younger generations, they want to go look them up on social media. And being able to put up the brand that can make them [say], ‘Oh, she’s wearing this? I want to wear it’ … just like stuff like that” is important, he said.
As NIL deals become increasingly ingrained in the sport’s fabric, Frese believes Maryland is well positioned for the inevitable arms race. She pointed to Maryland’s proximity to major markets and the name recognition of her team’s players. Miller, a second-team Associated Press All-American, could be the second overall pick in next month’s WNBA draft. The program itself has been ranked in the AP’s top-25 poll since 2010, the second-longest streak in the nation.
In a sport long dominated by the country’s best-funded teams, the programs with the best NIL deals could also, before long, field the best rosters. A recent survey of over 30 women’s college basketball coaches by The Athletic found that a majority felt NIL had changed recruiting either “a lot” (44%) or “completely” (13%). Only 9% said it hadn’t been changed “at all.”
“South Carolina is South Carolina,” Belzer said, referring to the defending champion Gamecocks, who have a collective of boosters that signed each of the team’s players to NIL deals worth at least $25,000 before the season. “But if Virginia Tech came to the table tomorrow and said, ‘We’re also going to do $25,000 a year for our student-athletes through all these opportunities,’ well, that already then positions themselves on the top of the ACC,” he said, because other schools in the region, including Maryland, are not paying that much.
“And so that’s part of the opportunity,” Belzer continued. “First to market has a lot of value right now, if done correctly.”
As Frese readies for a possible NCAA Tournament run, she knows what crossroads might await further down the road. When she asked her team last year whether it would prefer to have a booster-supported foreign trip or an NIL opportunity, there was no consensus. “It was split down the middle,” she recalled.
A year later, there’s still no decision. “We’re trying,” she said, “to do both.”