DALLAS — Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese will likely be playing against each other for a very long time.
The breakout stars leading Iowa and Louisiana State to the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball championship game on Sunday — a first for both teams — are two of the best players in the country, with some of the most lucrative marketing deals among college athletes.
They were the headliners of a remarkable 2020 recruiting class that has achieved atmospheric heights in women’s college basketball. Reese was ranked No. 2 in the group coming out of high school, just behind Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers. Clark was ranked No. 4, with Stanford’s Cameron Brink at No. 3.
All four of those players are likely to be household names well beyond college. They’ve already achieved a significant level of individual fame, and, once they reach the W.N.B.A., they are primed for long professional careers.
They are among the lucky few.
The opportunities in basketball for many female athletes peak at the Final Four. The spotlight is rarely brighter, and beyond the trophy awaiting Sunday’s winner is the earning potential newly available to the women who stand out. Players across the country who lack the star power of Reese or Clark are still able to make money within their fan bases.
But after Sunday, when many of the college athletes will look to further their careers in the professional ranks, they will face a ruthlessly crowded job market.
The W.N.B.A. faces a problem each spring, when hundreds of women vie for 144 spots in the world’s most prestigious professional women’s basketball league. Only 36 players are drafted, and of those perhaps half might make W.N.B.A. rosters by the time the season begins.
Now, the issue is heightening as the talent pool deepens in women’s college basketball.
That talent has been apparent in this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament, which has displayed the parity that women’s college basketball had historically lacked. Sunday’s title game will be the third ever without a top-seeded team, with Reese and Clark turning their games into personal showcases as their teams have built up championship runs.
Clark has consecutive 41-point performances, and her semifinal win came against the tournament’s odds-on favorite, South Carolina. Reese, nicknamed the Bayou Barbie, has been a scoring and rebounding machine all season as Louisiana State drew record crowds even before the tournament.
Even with the sport setting records for game attendance and TV viewership, there remains a sky-high barrier for entry into the W.N.B.A., where there are just 12 teams. In last year’s draft, just 17 players drafted made a team’s opening day roster.
Without a developmental league like the N.B.A.’s G League, players who have factored significantly into the 2023 tournament’s biggest moments and most significant victories, like L.S.U. guard Alexis Morris and Iowa center Monika Czinano, may have to play professionally outside of the W.N.B.A.
“We have all these people growing and mastering their craft, with no place to go in the United States,” U.C.L.A. Coach Cori Close said. “It’s just really sad that those are the conversations we’re having to have with our league and our college game being so healthy and vibrant and growing.”
Expansion would appear to be the easy fix, and there have been many calls for the W.N.B.A. to add more teams. But the league, which is partially funded by the N.B.A., has moved slowly on expansion because of financial concerns. The W.N.B.A.’s commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, said the league wants to add two to three teams in the next two to four years.
But expansion of the W.N.B.A. could cause other problems, in the minds of some college coaches.
“It does need to expand,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said, “but right now, a lot of college kids aren’t good enough.”
Barnes feared that a large expansion could “water down” the league and thus do more harm than good. A small expansion of two teams would also not solve the issue of college players struggling to stick in the league; those teams would likely add experienced players from overseas, she said, rather than rookies out of college.
The variables players have to weigh in deciding whether to enter the draft have also never been greater. Athletes can enter the transfer portal as a way to easily move between college teams. Next year will be the final season that athletes can take advantage of a fifth-year playing option afforded to them by the N.C.A.A. because of the pandemic. The detention of Britney Griner in Russia also changed the calculus about how far — and where — players are willing to go.
Perhaps most significantly, college athletes can now earn money from the use of their name, image and likeness, a category known widely as N.I.L. Many players can make more money from collectives and endorsements as college athletes than they can on a W.N.B.A. salary alone; the base pay for rookies this season will range from $62,285 to $74,305 depending on the draft round. Clark and Bueckers reportedly have marketing deals worth $1 million each, and tournament games this year have featured numerous television ads with college basketball players.
There’s also the issue of travel, which has been a hot-button topic in the W.N.B.A. Most major college basketball programs fly in charter planes. W.N.B.A. players fly commercial.
“A lot of players are trying to save for their fifth years,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. “They understand the opportunities they have in college and that it’s really, really competitive in the league and, potentially, you’re going to be going overseas.”
Clark and Reese will be eligible for the W.N.B.A. draft next year. Bueckers, who is out this year with a knee injury, and Brink, whose Stanford team lost in the second round of this year’s tournament, are eligible now but have each said they will return for another year of college. Each of those four players will have played in a national championship game, and will be among the top picks in the draft whenever they decide to go. But many of the teammates who helped get them there won’t carry the same cachet.
Czinano, the Iowa center, had 18 points and 3 rebounds in Friday’s game against South Carolina and has been a vital component of Clark’s success. She could have left for the W.N.B.A. after last season but didn’t, and is projected by most experts to be a late second- or third-round pick in this year’s draft, coming up on April 10. Now she’ll declare for the draft with a championship game — and maybe a title — under her belt.
“The decision to come back was the easiest decision I’ve ever had to make, quite honestly. I would have been a fool to leave this program and leave this family,” Czinano said on Friday. “I knew we had something to prove, but I would have done it no matter what. I would have come back with no expectations at all.”
Close, U.C.L.A.’s coach, said she has had difficult conversations with her players about realistic next steps after college.
Close often consults her peers in the W.N.B.A. about the state of the league, and one coach was frank about what life could be like for U.C.L.A.’s star guard Charisma Osborne, who declared for the draft this season, if she makes a roster.
“Does Charisma want to make more money and stay in college and get massages, fly charter, have everything paid for, have a nutritionist and have her own trainers that are paid for?” Close said, quoting the coach. “Or does she want to have none of those things and fly Southwest with us?”
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