Caitlin Clark and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Apr 15, 2024; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Caitlin Clark poses with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert after she is selected with the number one overall pick to the Indiana Fever in the 2024 WNBA Draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The past few months have seen an odd persistence of the debate on whether Caitlin Clark could have made more by staying in college for a fifth year rather than going to the WNBA.

In terms of actual deals, that’s a resolved discussion: Clark was not taking NIL money from Iowa’s collective, rather from brands, and those brand deals have followed her to the WNBA, so the rookie salary she gets there means she’s making more.

But people like Darren Rovell have continued to argue that Clark could have done better still if she had taken more NIL money to stay in college.

As discussed when Rovell (who just launched his own sports media platform CLLCT) previously brought this up in February, there are issues with his argument. In particular, it relies on NIL valuation rather than concrete deals, and it doesn’t really consider how many endorsements do transfer to the pro ranks.

There is a hypothetical possibility that Clark could have netted more money this coming year by staying in college. There are potential college-only deals she could have struck if she’d wanted to, including taking money from Iowa’s NIL collective and maybe even taking money from broadcast networks if that proposed deal had come together. Maybe those would overcome the lack of a college salary and whatever WNBA-only deals Clark is now able to strike following her first-overall selection by the Indiana Fever Monday. But it’s not clear that they would.

It is possible college could have produced a larger one-year number if Clark had been open to playing at another school. While NIL is not supposed to be pay for playing at a certain school, it does seem to work out that way in many cases. And there unquestionably would have been many collectives eager to have Clark come to their school, so she perhaps could have made more for playing (even if it wasn’t technically labeled as that). But that’s not an indictment of the WNBA in particular; that’s a function of free agency versus drafts and fixed rookie contracts, and that’s common across many professional sports.

However, it’s hard to fully evaluate any of those hypotheticals. We don’t know exactly what college-only deals for Clark would have looked like in financial terms, we don’t know if she would have entertained offers to transfer, and we don’t know what WNBA-only deals she may be able to sign now that she’s been drafted. It should be noted that the endorsements are far more significant than the salary at either level, with On3 estimating Clark’s current deals (most of which are expected to continue to the WNBA) at $3.1 million annually. It should also be noted, as Jemele Hill pointed out, that WNBA players also receive a free apartment and car, and that they have options to play overseas as well, with the WNBA contracts only running for four months:

But the larger thing here is that one-year financial discussions are missing the larger context for Clark and the WNBA. (If it was all about one-year finances, she should have taken the B1G3’s $5 million offer, if they actually were going to give her that money. She did not take that, for many good reasons.) There are a lot of other things going on with her move to the professional ranks. And many of them could pay off for her sooner rather than later.

Yes, even after her rookie contract ends, Clark is not likely to make a huge amount in WNBA salary under the current setup. The max salary for the 2023 season was $234,936, with that rising to $241,984 this year (and only three players hitting it this season: Seattle’s Jewell Loyd, Phoenix’s Kahleah Copper, and Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale). And the league has not yet hit the revenue thresholds that would trigger revenue sharing under the current CBA (signed in 2020, running through 2027).

But league revenues could wind up being quite different if some or all of the massive interest in Clark at the college level follows her to the WNBA. And we’re already seeing that on some fronts. Rovell himself noted the ticket sales for Fever games above, and also noted remarkable jersey sales for her:

And there’s already been massive gambling interest in Clark in the WNBA. As per Oddschecker’s cross-sportsbook listings, Clark is drawing huge interest in WNBA MVP betting.  Oddschecker’s Leon Blackman had more on that Tuesday:

“Since being drafted on Monday, bettors have been flocking to back Caitlin Clark to win the WNBA MVP award. Over 80 percent of all bets placed since the draft have backed Clark to become the second rookie ever to win the WNBA MVP award. She currently stands as a fourth-favorite with oddsmakers at +1200, trailing the likes of A’ja Wilson (+175), Breanna Stewart (+550), and Alyssa Thomas (+1000) in the betting.”

It would not be surprising at all to see intensified gambling interest on the games Clark plays in, especially if those get big TV audiences. We certainly saw that with her in the college ranks, with repeated records set there. And that was the case even with sometimes-limited sportsbook offerings on women’s college basketball.

Beyond those elements, the WNBA with Clark in it seems like a stronger proposal for national sponsorship deals and TV contracts. And while that wouldn’t necessarily immediately translate into a boost in salaries (if those revenue-sharing thresholds aren’t hit), Clark is entering the league at a time where those deals could change quickly.

The current WNBA CBA runs through 2027. But both the league and players’ association have options to opt out after 2025 if they give notice of doing so by the end of the 2024 season. And Bloomberg’s Jennah Haque reported last spring that the WNBPA was likely to exercise their option. The league’s media rights deals are also up in the fall of 2025, and they could make a lot more there.

Thus, if Clark’s presence does translate into increased sponsorships and TV ratings, that could quickly wind up benefiting the players with new media deals and a new CBA that boosts what revenues they get. And having Clark’s first professional season this year rather than next year could build a lot of momentum for new rights deals and a new CBA after 2025. Having Clark in the WNBA this year also comes with another big potential boost for the league from the 2024 Paris Olympics; if Clark does make the U.S. team for that tournament, the undoubtedly-huge audiences that would tune in for that might gain some familiarity with other WNBA players and follow the league more closely as a result.

The other important thing with Clark is what going to the WNBA now versus staying in college could mean for her overall. What is there really left for her to accomplish in college? Her 3,951 career points already broke the three most prominent highest-level career scoring records: Kelsey Plum’s 3,527 (NCAA Division I),  Lynette Woodard’s 3,649 (AIAW large-college division), and “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s 3,667 (Division I men’s or women’s). (Yes, she did not break Pearl Moore’s AIAW small-college division record of 4,061 points, but that one is far less frequently discussed.)

It’s too early to really have the greatest of all time debate about Clark, especially if we’re talking about impact beyond college. But there’s not much she could add to her resume in the NCAA ranks. A title would certainly be nice (and would remove the automatic disqualification of her from greatest of all time debates some have proposed), but it feels like there’s more for her to achieve in the pros at this point.

And it should be noted that age is always a factor, and health for an entire career is not guaranteed. Women’s basketball fans know that well with Cheryl Miller in particular, who dominated at the college and Olympic levels but was hindered in the pros by a succession of injuries. Clark is healthy now and entering the WNBA ranks, so we’ll get to see at least some of her at her best at that level.

There are of course risks to putting too much focus on Clark. And in some ways, the WNBA with Clark’s entrance is in a similar situation to MLS with Lionel Messi (although Clark is much younger, and coming in from a lower level rather than a higher one, and it’s far from clear she’ll dominate immediately in her new league). There are reasons for league executives to urge focus beyond that one star, but that one star is also driving a lot of the interest. So far, though, the league seems to be finding a good balance of marketing its new rookies (with many notable ones there beyond Clark, including Cameron Brink, Kamilla Cardoso, Angel Reese, and more) and its existing stars.

The overarching thing here is that evaluating if Clark will make more money this year in the WNBA or college is missing the larger point. Yes, that argument can go on forever, especially if impossible-to-evaluate hypotheticals are included. But Clark has made her decision that going to the WNBA right now is best for her, and there’s not a lot to really challenge that (and challenging players’ decisions on where to play without strong evidence is a bad idea in general). And that move could work out well for her and for the whole WNBA. It’s certainly not clear that the league’s ratings and revenue will rise dramatically just because of Clark’s entrance, but they could, and she and other players are in a strong position to benefit if they do.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.