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How NIL could catalyze visibility, growth and success for Iowa women’s sports
Iowa athletes weigh in on excitement, expert sheds light on potential for growth
IOWA CITY — Little girls playing basketball in Iowa want a Caitlin Clark jersey.
The West Des Moines Dowling grad skyrocketed to stardom this past season with 11 30-point games, averaging an NCAA-high of 27.4 points per game, earning the Dawn Staley Award as the best all-around guard and sharing the Tamika Catchings Award with UConn freshman Paige Bueckers as the most outstanding freshman of the year.
During the NCAA basketball tournament, Opendorse, an athlete marketing platform, released a list of the top 20 most followed men’s and women’s basketball athletes on Instagram, and Clark was No. 20 with 42,000 followers. In fact, eight of the top 10 were women, who also made up half of the list. Now, as of July 1, Clark has potential to cash in as one of college basketball’s top-earning athletes with the passing of NCAA legislation that allows athletes in states without NIL laws to profit.
“That’s just one company and it’s really hard to tell,” Clark said over the phone on Wednesday. “This is such uncharted territory, I’m not in any hurry.”
On July 1, Iowa had several athletes from football and men’s basketball posting opportunities to cash in on their name, image and likeness. Most notable was men’s basketball senior Jordan Bohannon, who hosted an autograph signing at a local fireworks store and sold T-shirts. Iowa football players like Tyrone Tracy Jr. flocked to apps like YOKE Gaming, which allows people to play games against their favorite athletes for a fee.
But Dr. Lindsey Darvin, professor of sports management and gender equity researcher at State University of New York-Cortland, said that this could benefit women athletes even more.
“Most people are focusing in on the top-level football players or teams and men's basketball,” Darvin said. “But they're really missing this larger story in my opinion: women athletes have really never had consistent opportunities to earn money off of their athletic skill.”
Darvin adds that especially for sports like softball, where pro-fast pitch has struggled to market itself, college is when women might be their most recognizable in sports.
According to Sports Media Watch, the NCAA women’s basketball final attracted over 4 million viewers on ESPN this year. USA Today reported that the Women’s College World Series finals also tallied record viewership of over 1.8 million, up 15 percent from the 2019 season in June.
Iowa’s Sweet 16 matchup against UConn attracted over 1.5 million viewers on ABC.
But in addition to record-setting TV viewership on the national level, Iowa has reliable local support.
“I wasn’t considering NIL at the time I was being recruited,” Clark said. “I didn’t want to play in an empty arena. Iowa City loves women’s basketball and I wouldn’t be surprised if we get 10,000 fans at games this year.”
Iowa head women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder adds that it’s not just Iowa’s recent success that contributes to that. NIL will be a special advantage for women’s sports to amplify their presence in Iowa.
“They are good role models, so why would you not want to cheer for them?” Bluder said. “People look up to the Iowa Hawkeyes and because of the lack of a professional sports team in town, or within our state, quite different than, like, University of Minnesota or Northwestern, for example.”
Iowa junior center Monika Czinano is also garnering attention from potential sponsors. She led the nation with a 66.8-percent field goal percentage. Czinano said she finds the opportunity long overdue for student-athletes, but also overwhelming given the unknowns. Like Clark, she’s taking her time because she wants to make sure any potential branding aligns with her passions.
As a team with high expectations, she’s excited for more people to get to know Iowa basketball through NIL opportunities.
“I think each of us individually, showing more of ourselves that people don't know, will allow us to embrace ourselves in more ways,” Czinano said. “More broadly, women can use this platform to kind of push our sport to the next level and get people aware of that we have a lot of big names.”
Women’s soccer, gymnastics hope to amplify recent success through NIL
Performance is also a factor in the NIL value of women’s athletes at Iowa, especially for sports like soccer and gymnastics, which don’t draw the same crowds, but enjoyed a historic year.
The women’s soccer team captured its first NCAA tournament win after only its third appearance ever in the tournament. Iowa gymnastics recorded its second-highest score in school history at the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional after capturing its first-ever regular season Big Ten title and placing third at the Big Ten Championships.
“It’s just another steppingstone to get more eyes on the floor,” graduate student and Iowa gymnast Clair Kaji said. “And another way to move forward into our careers as athletes now and in the future.”
Iowa soccer players Hailey Rydberg, Natalia Massa and Jalyn Mosley are the only Iowa women registered so far on OpenSponsorship, a social media marketing tool they access through INFLCR to attract sponsorships by building their personal brands.
Rydberg said her creative passions are cooking and fitness, and she hopes to incorporate that into her social media.
“We had this historic run last year and now we have this tool to make more connections and grow our social media,” Rydberg said. “I saw OpenSponsorship on the INFLCR app and thought it would be a great way to get started.”
Expert weighs in on Title IX concerns
There is concern, however, from Darvin, who wonders how the schools will be able to monitor potential Title IX implications. Iowa is still in the midst of a Title IX lawsuit despite reinstating its women’s swimming program because it isn’t fully compliant.
“Something to keep track of moving forward will just be how well are athletic departments promoting their women's teams and athletes compared to their men,” Darvin said. “I'm in New Jersey currently, you're seeing billboards for Rutgers football and are women athletes being given those same resources? If they're not, that could actually be a violation moving forward, because those women athletes are not as recognizable and it’ll lapse their ability to gain money.”
That’s what companies like INFLCR, Athliance and Opendorse are supposed to help with. Athletes across Iowa’s programs met with compliance on Thursday to discuss the rules on profiting off their NIL. Rydberg said the app provides a line of communication through compliance in order for athletes to get sponsorships approved.
But Darvin doesn’t think sponsorship opportunities should go through the athletics department at all. She hopes that conflicts of interest don’t interfere with an athlete’s ability to align with certain brands. She thinks a players’ association or outside nonprofit could lay groundwork for regulation instead.
Women across sports have become marketing experts when traditional media outlets haven’t often provided the platform. Athletes like James Madison pitcher Odicci Alexander, who pitched a complete game to defeat Oklahoma in the Women’s College World Series, gain 50,000 followers on Instagram overnight, or Fresno State basketball players like Haley and Hanna Cavinder create viral TikTok content that draw viewership to their now-recognizable faces.
This, Darvin says, goes back to high school, when girls were hanging the posters in the hallways to convince people to go to their games.
But women’s sports were already on the rise before the era of NIL, and now it’s just an added bonus for people like Clark, whose charismatic sportsmanship and 3-pointers dazzled millions of casual and dedicated basketball fans across the country.
“It'll be a learning process, but I think the biggest thing for me is just focusing on basketball and school because that's the reason you have these opportunities,” Clark said. “I think there'll be multiple people on my team that have a lot of really good opportunities just because we love our team and our game.”
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