‘She’s got power’: How UConn’s Paige Bueckers aims to use her NIL platform for women’s basketball

The beginning of the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) era arrived in a whirlwind for Paige Bueckers.

There was no doubt she’d benefit from the new NCAA rules that stripped away regulations for college athletes’ earning ability, but the unprecedented changes felt like they were happening so fast in July that it took her time to figure them out.

This was a new world for all college athletes, but it was an acute issue for her. Few have her fame, social media presence or talent. Even fewer have her opportunity. As women’s college basketball’s reigning Naismith Player of the Year at the most prestigious program in the sport, and with more than 1 million social media followers, Bueckers could have quickly cashed in like almost no one else.

Instead, she took her time. She studied the new landscape. She peppered famous UConn alums with questions and signed with Wasserman sports marketing company and power agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas. They set out a strategy to make NIL work long term for Bueckers.

Months later, before missing 19 games with an injury, she stood inside the Huskies practice facility, her eyes wide, her face breaking into a smile. Bueckers represents what NIL has brought to college basketball and to the women’s game. The spotlight is bright, even for her.

Paige Bueckers Praised For Classy Reaction to Controversial Foul After  UConn's Final Four Loss - Athlon Sports

“It’s crazy,” she said.

Bueckers has occupied a unique place in basketball for a while. She was the nation’s No. 1 recruit out of her Minnesota high school and burdened with the expectations of being the next, great UConn star. As a freshman, she piled up major awards and took the Huskies to the Final Four. Her sophomore season has been more trying — she tore her lateral meniscus and fractured the anterior tibial plateau in her left knee in December. Bueckers returned Friday after a nearly three-month absence, but she’s a dynamic enough player that few doubt she might still spark a national championship run for the Huskies.

NIL has added to her expanding stature. Although just 20 percent of the top 100 highest-earning college athletes were women, as of an Opendorse study through October shared with The Athletic, Bueckers has been an outlier. In July, she filed a trademark for her nickname “Paige Buckets.” She announced a deal in November with StockX, an online shoe and merchandise reseller. Shortly after she became the first college athlete to represent Gatorade — going from winning its National Girls Basketball Player of the Year award in 2020 to repping the company in a few years. In February, she announced a shorter-term partnership with Cash App. Opendorse estimates she likely can command more than $60,000 for an Instagram post promoting a brand. Forbes recently estimated she was “a few deals away” from reaching $1 million in endorsements.

This new era not only has increased Bueckers’ earning potential, it also has given her another platform. And she has thought carefully about how to wield this power. She is using it to show that women can sell sneakers, too. She has vowed to use her opportunities to be an ally to Black women athletes who often do not garner the same recognition she does. She wants to grow women’s basketball, and she has received pledges from her new partners to help.

She is the face of NIL for the sport; eventually she hopes others will reap the benefits at a similar magnitude.

“Our hope is that what she’s able to do becomes a model for other athletes who have power because that’s what she has,” Colas says. “She’s got power.”

“Bruh, Paige, no you didn’t,” says UConn’s Chrisytn Williams.

Bueckers, seated on a counter, smiles and shrugs when the video flips to her. Thanks to her StockX deal, Bueckers had just gifted each of her teammates a different pair of sneakers. Christmas came late for the Huskies in the form of a February shoe drop. She has said she wanted to share, and here she was.

It’s not just UConn teammates with whom Bueckers is looking to share the wealth. She has been deliberate and selective, seeking deals that can back up what she wants. Bueckers can afford to say “no,” and over the last year, she and her marketing team have said that word a lot.

The NIL rollout, as expected, has been uneven. Some athletes have reached partnerships with local restaurants, while others represent national chains. Colas estimates there was an equal amount of incoming requests and proactive outreach to secure partners for Bueckers. Her deals show she is focused on long-term profits and staying power. And they reveal her considerable reach.

“With her being a phenomenal basketball player, being young, a very successful talented female athlete, she can leverage that to help create her brand and to do good as well,” said Tim Derdenger, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business. “She’s at a really exciting time for her because the possibilities are pretty endless for her. There’s probably a lot at her fingertips to choose from. It’s exciting, but it can be daunting, about, ‘All right, well, what do I do? How do I do it?’”

Bueckers has mixed in a legacy business with emerging tech, and she’s leaned on them to push her ambitions forward. StockX and Gatorade offered multi-year partnerships that put her in elite company among college athletes. She and Gatorade have promised to grow women’s basketball in part through a sports equity initiative focused on removing barriers for play at the youth level. Her Cash App sponsorship helped launch The Paige Bueckers Foundation, which partners with Minnesota charitable organizations and broadly aims to create opportunities for children and families and promote social justice.

UConn star Paige Bueckers inks Gatorade NIL deal | Fox Business

Bueckers and her marketing team can quantify her influence. Part of her StockX partnership includes access to data that allows them to see her impact on sales. “That is a complete fallacy that women don’t move product,” says Tom Woodger, StockX vice president of global cultural marketing. “We see it every day on StockX, and obviously we see the power of these women in what they do as their profession.”

Her first StockX promotion included merchandise links so she and her marketing team can see data on how Bueckers moved product and if there’s traction around what she wears. The WNBA’s merchandise shortage dispels the myth about a lack of demand for women’s sports products. Bueckers can be another example.

Derdenger anticipates her high-profile deals will spill over into more lucrative endorsements for other female college athletes as companies acquire NIL numbers that make them more comfortable with larger payouts.

“We will be able to show and be really transparent about sell-through and success in ways that makes the case for companies who may have hesitated to do signature product with women athletes before to show, ‘Hey, women do move product,’” Colas says. “This is a smart investment. This is not charity. This is not just the right thing. This is really smart business and we’re going to show you the data that proves that.”

Bueckers must wear Nike, a school sponsor, on the court for UConn and at all team-related events. But the StockX deal does not limit what brands she can wear off the court — a testament to her marketing power. Though her StockX deal might not be in effect when Bueckers begins her WNBA career, it’s the company’s longest ever sponsorship contract.

The StockX deal is a building block for Bueckers’ career. If she boosts the company’s sales, she’ll have ammunition for future contracts.

“So no longer is it an assumption by whatever fanboy CMO who happens to only watch the NFL,” Colas said. “It’s not just a feeling. We’re talking about data now. Are people going to pay attention to it? Perhaps, that’s another step. But at least we can be intentional and clear about, this is what success looks like. There is a demand for this. If you make it, people are buying it.”

Bueckers became a priority for StockX, working with the company on marketing strategies (whether about personal style or her community) before November’s partnership announcement. The company viewed her as a complement to the innovative and disruptive platform it has tried to cultivate. StockX’s female audience is growing, Woodger said, and it’s working on further investing and tailoring the platform to female consumers. Most importantly, Woodger points out, is that Bueckers uses her voice. StockX didn’t just want her to act as a billboard for the company. Topics she cares about will be reflected in marketing plans.

“We wanted Paige’s mind,” Woodger said. “We wanted her thoughts. We wanted her drive and values.”

While accepting an ESPY award for Best Female College Athlete, Bueckers’ speech highlighted Black women and called for increased media coverage and sponsorships for Black female athletes. The two-minute clip went viral, earning Bueckers praise across the basketball world.

Bueckers has been in the public eye since high school, but the speech marked a turning point for the young superstar. In a way, it accentuated how she wants to approach her publicity, and it foretold her goals for NIL. She has built control into her deal with StockX to promote equity. Colas declined to specify whether her deal includes an inclusion rider — a contract provision that requires or encourages staff diversity — but she said there’s a mutual commitment to equity. In Bueckers’ initial announcement about StockX, she highlighted the importance of “shining a light on all the creatives that drive culture.”

Bueckers will have considerable say in who works on her StockX campaigns, which is written into her contract with the company. She can curate the stylists, models, location, and behind-the-scenes personnel on her shoots, which have been female-led and included women of color. She also can recommend potential creators and partners to StockX and provide feedback on the company’s suggestions for these roles before products are released.

“We want to put the power in her hands,” Woodger says. “We obviously have this huge platform to amplify that story, but we want Paige’s fingerprints to be all over it because she lives and breathes this and stands for it.”

But it is also indisputable that she is a White woman profiting the most from the new splash of money into the sport that other successful players have not received. Aliyah Boston, the star center for No. 1 South Carolina and The Athletic’s 2021 Player of the Year, has not announced similar national and multi-year deals that Bueckers has. Boston, who is Black, has signed a deal with Bojangles — one of more than 75 college athletes to partner with the regional restaurant chain — and she has NIL representation with Klutch Sports Group’s new women’s basketball division.

Bueckers is cognizant of the disparity.

“I’ve tried to put equity, whether it be women and men in sports or White basketball players and Black basketball players, I want that same light for me to be shown on them,” Bueckers said. “So that’s what I’m going to do and that’s what I’m going to try to continue to do with every single one of my deals. It’s just fight for Black Lives Matters and fight for minorities to get the same attention that I do because I’m White and playing basketball. So I think just with my light that I get from others and from Gatorade, from StockX, from any deal I sign, I just want to be able to shine that on other people that don’t get the same attention that I do.”

In a sea of green and yellow in the stands at UConn’s game at Oregon, a fan wore a black and bright blue jersey. The hue wasn’t UConn navy, rather Hopkins High School blue. Halfway across the country, the fan was sporting Bueckers’ youth jersey at a game the sophomore wasn’t even suiting up for. That’s power.

As a 20-year pro, Sue Bird sees the way Bueckers’ national collegiate popularity has led to her deals and believes that can help expand the WNBA’s footprint.

“When I watch Paige play, I sense a confidence,” says Bird, a UConn alum and fellow Wasserman client. “I sense a swag. When she hits a big shot, she’s getting hype, you can see it on her face, you can see when she flexes her little baby muscles, she is hype out there. I think there’s something infectious about that when you’re a fan and watching. When a player has the talent that she has, I think people are going to want to see what she does next.”

Bueckers and the newfound marketing prowess for women athletes are intersecting at the right time. Bird certainly would have profited significantly from NIL deals. So would have Sheryl Swoopes or Candace Parker. Even if NIL deals had been allowed in 2020, Sabrina Ionescu — the former college Player of the Year who had the top-selling WNBA jersey with the Liberty in 2021 — would have found a windfall of opportunities at Oregon. But they all had to wait until they became WNBA stars to reap endorsement dollars.

In this new world, Bueckers can use her college business ties to enhance her upcoming professional opportunities.

It wasn’t long into Bueckers’ freshman season that fans began throwing out hot takes about how good she’ll be as a pro. Because of current rules, they’ll have to wait to find out. Unlike the NBA, the WNBA CBA will keep Bueckers, 20, in college until she’s 22 within the calendar draft year or within three months of college graduation.

Bueckers’ transition from college to pros is part of the strategy, Colas says. Bueckers’ partnerships are great fits now, her agent adds, and perhaps might still be down the line, but there will be opportunities to reset their strategies.

“Her prowess could spill over to the WNBA when she gets drafted,” Derdenger says. “That’s going to bring attention to the WNBA.”

Bueckers’ NIL impact reflects changes in women’s college basketball. Last season’s NCAA Tournament highlighted gender disparities in the men’s and women’s postseasons, prompting an equity review, women’s tournament expansion and March Madness branding changes.

In its infancy stages, it’s hard to know how much — or if — NIL will close the sports gender gap. Despite the large disparity in highest-earning college athletes by gender, when it came to the 100 most active from July-November, men accounted for just 54 percent of the athletes, according to Opendorse. Women’s basketball was the second top sport for NIL compensation through the end of 2021, per the company.

‘She’s got power’: How UConn’s Paige Bueckers aims to use her NIL platform for women’s basketball

Bueckers’ freshman teammate Azzi Fudd announced deals of her own with Chipotle, BioSteel, American Eagle and a unique partnership with Steph Curry. Oregon’s Sedona Prince has promoted her own partnerships, as has Stanford’s Cameron Brink. The Cavinder twins from Fresno State parlayed their nearly 4 million TikTok followers into deals with WWE and Boost Mobile. But with her play and the business’s world’s attention, Bueckers has made one of the biggest NIL splashes.

Gender equity is a topic in all discussions with clients, Colas says. They want to talk about closing those gaps.

“I think people see Paige as a key way to address that,” she says. “Using her voice, using her position, and I do think that having the sponsors come in through NIL, is a way to start addressing that specifically without waiting for the NCAA to get smarter.”

Colas compared Bueckers’ business acumen to her role as UConn’s point guard — there’s creativity, letting a play come to her and also knowing when it’s her time. That comparison is a reminder that this all circles back to basketball. Bueckers’ court vision often has been described as steps ahead of those around her.

A few years in the future will determine if her role in the NIL space will be the same.

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