University of Iowa

NIL, social media a double-edged sword amid growth of women's sports

NIL deals and social media have helped fuel the growth of women's sports. Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder shares her thoughts on the growth of the game

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In 2020, Caitlin Clark was a freshman, playing her first year of college basketball in a stadium filled with COVID-era cardboard cutouts, including one depicting her dog Bella. 

Four years later, the phenom played in front of a sold-out crowd of almost 14,000 at MVP Arena in Albany, with a 2023 national title game rematch against LSU drawing a recording-breaking 12.3 million viewers on television. 

Aside from the pandemic subsiding, what happened in the intervening four years has defied expectations and blown away those both within and outside of the sport. 

With the introduction of name, image and likeness (NIL) deals, athletes have been given unprecedented opportunities to invest in themselves off the court. While allowing NIL deals has received mixed reviews around the country, Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder didn’t mince words when sharing her thoughts about the new avenues for players to market themselves. 

“NIL, being able to use your own name to have your own basketball camp or do a commercial, whatever it is you want to do, why not have that opportunity?” she said. “Our players have learned so many great, valuable lessons business-wise, marketing-wise, PR-wise. I mean, it's been a class in itself what these young athletes have learned at an early age about financial management and about business.”

Clark was the fourth collegiate athlete and second women’s basketball player to partner with Gatorade when she inked a deal with the company in Dec. 2023. She also has NIL deals with State Farm, Nike and Hy-Vee, among other companies. According to On3 Sports, Clark’s NIL valuation stands at $3.2 million, the highest mark in women’s college basketball. 

“You're right. All of our players have some sort of NIL opportunity,” Bluder said when asked about the benefits of NIL. “I think that when people see Caitlin in national commercials, that adds to that star power, right? It's more credibility. It's more visibility. It just continues to add to the lure of a great basketball player.”

With fame and fortune comes criticism, and social media has made athletes accessible to fans and critics in ways they never have been before. Bluder, although admittedly not a social media expert, knows the toll it can take on an athlete’s well-being. 

She even went as far as suggesting the team stay off social media during the NCAA Tournament.

“What I've done since the NCAA tournament has started is caution them, ‘Let's not be on social media.’” Maybe you're going to post, but please don't read. They've done a really good job with it. You look at social media, there will be a hundred things written about you; 99 of them are going to be great, and one of them's bad. You are going to walk away remembering that one bad one, so don't read any of them.

“I hope they listen to me. I don't know if they do for sure. I know they have made a pact to stay off of it during the NCAA tournament,” she added. 

Although Bluder knows social media has its negatives, she also knows social media has contributed to the growth of women’s sports. 

“There's a lot of bad things about social media, but there's a lot of good things as far as the support that they can build for themselves, their brands that they can build for themselves,” Bluder said. “And also just the life that social media can take, good or bad, but it's really helped spread the word.”

Who is Caitlin Clark? Read more about the Iowa basketball start here

With so few tentpole opportunities available to advertisers in a now-splintered market that must cater to both regular television and streaming services, live sports has become the holy grail of capturing attention, dominating television ratings and watercooler talk nationwide. 

As much, media coverage has helped to shape and fuel the explosive growth of women’s sports. 

“I think the rise has happened largely due to we're getting more media coverage,” Bluder said. “I mean, when nobody knows about you, it's hard to get fan support, it's hard to get enthusiasm behind your program. But because we are on national television now, because we are in the spotlight more as a sport, as women's basketball, people are talking about it. People are recognizing how good of a game it is. People get to know these stars.”

With two rounds left in the NCAA Tournament, women’s basketball and Clark still have the opportunities to break more records and draw even more eyeballs to the sport. 

“I think the trajectory of women's basketball is going to keep going,” Bluder said. “There are so many bright stars in this game.”

Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes are set to take on Paige Bueckers and the UConn Huskies in the Final Four on Friday, April 5, at 8:30 p.m. CT.

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