Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark is shown during the team photo shoot Oct. 4, 2023 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. CREDIT BRIAN RAY/HAWKEYESPORTS.COM
Caitlin Clark is breathing rarefied air.
The list of athletes whose marketing influence can help sell everything from insurance to cars to breakfast cereal is short, indeed – male or female, college or professional.
And it’s not just Ms. Clark’s generational excellence as a basketball player – and her iconic shoulder shrug after a “logo 3” or other particularly exciting play – that’s propelling her to superstardom. Her acumen for business is rapidly becoming the stuff of legend, in the Hawkeye State and nationwide.
A 6-foot point guard now in her senior season with the University of Iowa, Ms. Clark came to the Hawkeyes as a highly-touted recruit from Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, where she was named a McDonald’s All-American and rated the fourth-best player in her class by ESPN.
Since then, her athletic status has risen exponentially. Even in a 100-92 overtime loss by Iowa to Ohio State Jan. 21 in Columbus, Ms. Clark had her top scoring output of the season (45 points) – notably emerging unscathed after a postgame collision with an OSU fan storming the court.
And her notoriety is spreading well beyond Iowa. Ms. Clark is on track to become the first women’s basketball player to be featured on all four broadcast networks (CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox) in the same season.
In many ways, Ms. Clark is becoming a household name, a personality recognized both inside and beyond the sports realm. And that level of recognition is translating into a level of marketing influence rarely seen among college athletes, male or female – and among female athletes in general.
“I’ve heard it called “Caitlin-omics,” said Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder. “She’s the face of basketball, men or women, right now in college. She’s the best player in America. If you go anywhere around the country where they know anything about basketball, they know who Caitlin Clark is.”
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Caitlin Clark and NIL deals
As is increasingly the case with college athletes, Ms. Clark’s financial value and social media following is growing as rapidly as her athletic prowess.
As of 2023, her total net worth was already estimated at $3 million, according to Equity Atlas – a figure that’s expected to increase dramatically by the end of this season. And much of that value has come from the NCAA’s new Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) policy.
Enacted in 2021, NIL refers to the rights of college athletes to control and profit from their name, image and likeness. In the past, these rights were restricted by the NCAA.
In the most recent report of NIL value for female athletes, Ms. Clark ranked fifth, with a reported $818,000 in NIL deals. Here’s a rundown of her numerous NIL and sponsorship agreements, and the date those deals were signed:
Gatorade (Dec. 12, 2023) – one of four college athletes to sign a long-term deal with Gatorade, joining UConn’s Paige Bueckers (was the first college athlete to sign with the brand), Penn State football’s Nick Singleton and Colorado football’s Shedeur Sanders. “We’re thrilled to be a part of Caitlin’s journey to greatness early in her career,” Jeff Kearney, Gatorade’s global head of sports marketing, said in a statement. “[We] look forward to building upon the incredible impact she’s already made.”
State Farm (Oct. 10, 2023) – the first college athlete to sign with the insurance giant.
Nike Basketball (Oct. 10, 2022) – one of five college athletes to sign an NIL endorsement deal.
Bose – This deal was announced during the 2023 NCAA tournament. Others with Bose deals include Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. The deal included a “hype video” backed by Jay-Z, Rihanna and Kanye West’s classic “Run This Town.”
The Vinyl Studio, Des Moines (August 2021) – a deal that included the release of a line of limited-edition T-shirts.
Hy-Vee (November 2021) – the first collegiate athlete partner of the Iowa-based grocery chain.
H&R Block (March 31, 2022) – Ms. Clark has been featured in various ads for the tax preparer, including headlining the company’s “A Fair Shot” campaign, a string of advertisements aimed at helping female athletes earn fairer NIL compensation relative to their male counterparts.
Buick (March 14, 2023) – Ms. Clark was one of a handful of women’s college basketball players — alongside Aliyah Boston (South Carolina), Cameron Brink (Stanford), Azzi Fudd (UConn) and Kiki Rice (UCLA) — to take part in Buick’s #SeeHerGreatness campaign.
Goldman Sachs (March 15, 2023) – Ms. Clark and North Carolina’s Caleb Love appear in a video calling for viewers to support Congress’ modernization and reauthorization of the Small Business Administration.
Excel Sports Management (Oct. 24, 2023) – Ms. Clark signed with Excel Sports Management for NIL representation, after previously handling her own NIL deals. She shares an agent at Excel with legendary NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.
Iowa Cubs (2022 and 2023 seasons) – details of this deal weren’t immediately available, but the deal includes the debut of Ms. Clark’s bobblehead figure.
Topps (July 26, 2022) – the deal includes “some of the first officially licensed University of Iowa cards ever made by Topps.”
Keys to success
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) during the team photo shoot Wednesday, October 4, 2023 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. CREDIT BRIAN RAY/HAWKEYESPORTS.COM
Ms. Clark has become increasingly known for her joy of the game and for embracing her growing fame, often staying after games to sign autographs for eager fans.
She’s also an ardent supporter of her teammates. A recent video celebrating Ms. Clark’s 22nd birthday featured the star guard “reverse gifting” the entire team with basketball shoes from a fellow Nike athlete, Kyler Murray’s “Be 1 of One” Nike Dunks. According to Sports Illustrated, the green and gold shoes, released in November 2023, are now only available on the secondary resale market, where they are listed between $200 and $500, depending on size.
But even considering her prowess as a basketball player, Ms. Clark is becoming a generational figure in college sports, and for female athletes as a whole. So what’s driving her success beyond many of her athletically gifted peers?
In a September 2023 article written by Tom Snee for the UI’s Tippie School of Business, where Ms. Clark recently completed her coursework for a degree in marketing, associate professor Nancy Abram, who taught Ms. Clark in fall 2022, said the Title IX law, passed in 1972 to prohibit sex-based discrimination in any federally funded school, helped guarantee opportunities for female college athletes.
“She’s really pushing the sports world forward for women,” she said.
“She brought in a lot of students who worked at places like Amazon and Microsoft who talked about how they got where they are in their career, and a lot of former students who gave us a lot of guidance,” Ms. Clark said of Ms. Abram in the article. “The class focused on problem solving and I love her energy. She really engaged me with marketing.”
“(Caitlin is) just a really smart person,” said Cathy Zaharis, emeritus professor of practice in finance and long-time courtside season ticket holder, who taught the team how to dine properly in a professional etiquette class early last season.
She said that what’s most impressive is Ms. Clark’s willingness to use her stardom as a platform. She builds the women’s game every chance she gets, signs every autograph, and she partnered with the Coralville Food Pantry to raise more than $75,000.
“She asks herself, ‘How do I use my voice where I have one?’” Ms. Zaharis said. “’How do I use my platform to create opportunities that are bigger than playing basketball’?”
After an 18-year career at ESPN, Sara Gotfredson founded the Trailblazing Sports Group, a Los Angeles-based marketing firm dedicated to “revolutionizing brand investment in women’s sports” by advising “strategic investments and revenue growth strategies that will make an impact in the women’s sports ecosystem.”
“I think she just connects with her fan base,” Ms. Gotfredson said of Ms. Clark. “The story of her roots in Iowa, about her growing up and playing basketball since she was four – she just has this connection and this joy that she brings to the court. She seems to really enjoy playing for all these fans. You’ve seen those stories where she stayed until the last person (who wanted an autograph got one), when there was a line wrapped around whatever building she was in. There’s a sense of connection that fans feel with her, and I think that does separate female athletes from some male athletes. When athletes can find that genuine connection with fans, when they feel relatable to them off the field – that to me is the magic that happens, when you think about how to tap into that as a brand and as a partner.”
“That’s how I was raised,” Ms. Clark said in the UI Tippie article. “Treat everyone with kindness and respect and be my genuine self. This is who I am.”
Leader of a larger movement
In Ms. Gotfredson’s estimation, Ms. Clark is at the forefront of a new era for women’s athletics.
“She’s transcending sports currently, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that,” she said. “Her talent is number one. I think the exposure of having a big media platform like ESPN cover the tournament in a bigger way the last couple of years is a big reason more people, casual sports fans, and non-sports fans, are hearing the names of Caitlin Clark, (LSU’s) Angel Reese and the like.”
That prominence will help Ms. Clark beyond her basketball career, said Peggy Stover, associate professor of practice and director of the University of Iowa Marketing Institute in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business.
“Caitlin is a remarkable athlete,” Ms. Stover said. “She, along with her UI teammates, have given collegiate women’s basketball a spotlight which has resulted in elevating it to the forefront with fans, the media, and the public. NIL and sponsorships will no doubt help her be more financially secured than other college athletes. It will give her a tremendous head start in being financially independent vs. the average (22-year-old).”
Ms. Clark’s personal characteristics are also key to success in the NIL realm and with striking sponsorship deals with prominent national firms, Ms. Bluder said.
“It shows you the star power that these athletes have, especially in the state of Iowa, where we have no pro sports and people are looking for role models,” she said. “Our team, Caitlin included, are exemplary role models, and I think people realize that they can invest their marketing dollars in these athletes and get good returns.”
It’s also instructive that Ms. Clark has embraced her notoriety and the associated benefits to female athletes as a whole, Ms. Bluder said.
“She’s been part of a whole movement of women’s athletics right now,” she said. “You see what’s going on all over the country, where women’s games are sold out, when we have 56,000 (fans) in Kinnick Stadium to see us play a scrimmage game and there are 90,000 over at Nebraska watching a volleyball game. There’s an explosion of women’s athletics going on, and largely because we’re getting more TV exposure than we’ve ever had before, so people are understanding how good the level of play is and how exciting it is.”
And the increased attention to women’s sports isn’t motivated by a philanthropic desire to raise their profile, Ms. Bluder said.
“Everything is about ratings and money,” she said. “These companies wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t getting value out of it. Our Fox game (against Indiana Jan. 13) drew almost 1.1 million people to watch it. For our national championship game (against LSU April 2), nearly 10 million people tuned in. So it’s obvious that there’s real value in having those games on television.”
Ms. Gotfredson compared Ms. Clark to other generational athletes, such as tennis’ Serena Williams or basketball’s Sue Bird, but noted that those athletes’ success came primarily after turning pro, while Ms. Clark is achieving her notoriety while still in college.
“She’s definitely a transformational athlete, and she’s really transcended the sport,” Ms. Gotfredson said. “I think that’s a great thing for girls who want to grow up to be like her, or just are turning on women’s basketball games that maybe hadn’t before. The fandom and the hype around Caitlin and this class of college women college basketball players is something that I have not seen in my 25 years of working in sports, and it’s a really exciting time.”
What the future holds
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) after winning their game against Michigan State 76-73 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa on Tuesday, January 2, 2024. (ALYSSA SKALA/HAWKEYESPORTS.COM)
Assuming there are no catastrophic injuries, most expect Ms. Clark’s profile to continue to rise, and that’s a good thing in the athletic world, Ms. Stover said.
“NIL has allowed collegiate athletes to pursue and enjoy financial opportunities during their short time with college sports,” she said. “This is especially important for college athletes who may not achieve the level of fame or stardom when they go pro. Depending on the sport, an athlete’s career tends to be short-lived. There are many examples of past college athletes who, for many reasons, did not achieve the same level of success when they turned pro as they had when in college. NIL and sponsorships allow athletes to earn some money during their few years in college.”
The next question for fans of Ms. Clark and women’s basketball: Will she turn pro after this season, as a likely first-overall pick in the upcoming WNBA draft, or stay in college for another year of eligibility? And would staying in college, with its NIL and Swarm collective funding, be of greater financial benefit to Ms. Clark than entering the WNBA, where player salaries are lower than their peers on the men’s side?
Either choice is not a given at this point, Ms. Bluder said.
“A lot of the deals that she signed now are national deals that will probably go with her to the WNBA,” she said. “They’re not just because she’s at Iowa. I do think the exposure she gets from being at the university is going to be more than exposure she gets in the WNBA, which could raise her value for companies to stay in college. I don’t know what her contracts involve, if they go with her to the WNBA or not. But I don’t think any of us can say whether she’ll make more money staying or going. Only her marketing team probably knows that.”
Whatever choice she makes, Ms. Clark has the leverage to make a significant impact on the landscape of college athletics, and female athletics overall.
“It’s up to Caitlin to decide if she wants to use her stardom to bring attention to issues of pay disparity for female athletes,” Ms. Stover said. “She’s certainly in a position to use her notoriety to champion whatever social causes she believes in.”
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) celebrates her game winning three point basket against the Michigan State Spartans Tuesday, January 2, 2024 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. CREDIT BRIAN RAY/HAWKEYESPORTS.COM
The advent of NIL deals has certainly changed the factors that impact decisions like this, Ms. Gotfredson said.
“I think that it’s great for the athletes and I’m happy that both men and women can capitalize on their accomplishments and make a living,” she said. “I would say that there’s a tremendous opportunity for her in the W (WNBA). I think that a lot of us would love to see her come to the W this year and just elevate that league with her presence. NIL and the dollars are appealing, but I don’t think it’s everything. It’s a chapter in her life, and I think the best is yet to come for her as she plays professionally in the W. From a national perspective and for the popularity of women’s basketball, I think the country would benefit from having her in that league.”
For Ms. Bluder, the latest growth in women’s athletics, exemplified by the superstardom of Ms. Clark, represents an exciting time in female sports, both athletically and economically.
“It’s pretty gratifying,” Ms. Bluder said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and now that people are realizing how good our product is, it’s rewarding for me, and it’s rewarding for the athletes to be able to play in front of sold-out crowds on national television.”
The marketing and business success, Ms. Bluder added, “shows the power and the impact that these young women can have for companies. They don’t want to waste their marketing dollars. So I think that it’s obvious that national brands are investing in Caitlin because they’re going to get a reward and profit from that. It’s exciting where women’s athletics are now, and Caitlin is surely at the forefront of all of that.”