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How California’s Fair Pay to Play Act would impact women’s basketball players — both in college and out

Less than one percent of NCAA women’s basketball players are WNBA-bound, and less than seven percent go pro at all. But in the four years that women’s basketball players generally spend playing in college, California’s new law means being able to monetize their likenesses before taking this step — if they take it at all.

Connecticut Sun v Los Angeles Sparks
Imagine the opportunities the Ogwumike sisters might have had to make money as a power duo during their two years together at Stanford!
Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the state’s much-discussed and much-debated Fair Pay to Play Act on UNINTERRUPTED’s The Shop:

Alongside Newsom and hosts LeBron James and Maverick Carter, the panel included, among others, Diana Taurasi and former UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, whose viral floor exercise routines captivated the world.

The law itself is quite straightforward. As Vox explains:

The new law doesn’t actually require schools to pay athletes directly, as if they were employees. Instead, it makes it illegal for schools to prevent an athlete from earning money by selling the rights to his or her name, image, or likeness to outside bidders.

In simplest terms, this doesn’t mean the NCAA, or even the schools, are paying the athletes, but rather anyone who wants to pay the athletes for being athletes outside of school.

If all stays on track, the new law will take effect in California on Jan. 1, 2023. But that’s soon enough for this year’s incoming freshmen, who would be eligible to hire agents and accept endorsements in the spring of their last season (or in their final year-and-a-half, if they take a redshirt season).

Imagine the prospects of Stanford freshman Fran Belibi, the historic high school dunker who head coach Tara VanDerveer also hopes will be able to contribute in a similar way to the Ogwumike sisters:

Or fellow Stanford freshman Haley Jones, the nation’s top 2019 recruit whose “versatility and size set her apart from other players,” per VanDerveer, at 6-foot-1:

Because college women’s basketball players tend to use all four years of their eligibility — due in part to the WNBA Draft eligibility rules, for those who pursue that option — this law would allow four years of exploring moneymaking opportunities while in college, even if they’re bound for the pros.

This could include major endorsement deals, yes, but also smaller ventures like monetizing a YouTube channel or appearing in local commercials while acknowledging their identity as an NCAA athlete — and finishing their degrees.

If similar laws are passed in other states, it also means athletes like Taurasi, who said on The Shop that the University of Connecticut is still making money off of her, Sue Bird’s and Rebecca Lobo’s likenesses, could finally, 15 years after graduation, have a say in how her UConn persona is used.

NCAA Womens Champ Game
UConn’s Tamika Williams, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird celebrate defeating Oklahoma for the 2002 national championship.
Getty Images

Per the NCAA, the probability of a women’s basketball player being drafted — not making a team — in the ultra-exclusive WNBA after competing in college is 0.9 percent, the lowest of any major professional league. Among women’s basketball players who opt to play overseas (instead of or in addition to the WNBA), this figure jumps to 6.9 percent.

The college rooting culture is much different than the WNBA’s. Tens of thousands of people have ties to universities, cheer on their teams and are influenced and inspired by their athletes. But when it comes to the WNBA, unless a player from one’s college of choice makes the leap, fandom can wane. With only 12 teams and no farm system, selecting a local team and attending their games isn’t an option for many fans. Going to the nearby Division I college’s games, though, is.

Imagine having been able to financially support the 13 current WNBA players who attended California colleges, while they were in college: Monique Billings, Kennedy Burke and Jordin Canada of UCLA; Layshia Clarendon, Brittany Boyd, Reshanda Gray and Kristine Anigwe of Cal; Erica McCall, Karlie Samuelson, Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike and Alanna Smith of Stanford; and Temi Fagbenle of USC.

Or, if California’s legislation goes national (as the NCAA and some major conference leadership fear), imagine having been able to financially support local greats like Vivian Frieson of Gonzaga or Brittany Hrynko of DePaul, players who made names for themselves by giving four impactful years to their college teams.

Imagine the commercials that Quinnipiac head coach Tricia Fabbri and player-slash-daughter Carly could have made together!

But even if it is a little bit about the “what-ifs,” this center of this legislation is the players who can still benefit from being able to profit off their names, images and likenesses — their earned status as college athletes — while they’re enjoying the fandom, the fervor and the culture that comes from competing at what is the highest level for 93.1 percent of women’s basketball players.

If we’re really thinking of the athletes here, giving them a chance to be their best — which now includes profiting off their success and the prestige they bring their universities when they can — is the goal.

“[School leadership] all think this is the end of Title IX, they’re saying you’re destroying the purity of amateurism,” Gov. Newsom said on The Shop. “Not once did they talk about the needs of these kids.”

But on the impact of signing the bill, Newsom added, “That’s the whole damn point, it’s the power arrangement. The minute we sign this, now all of a sudden, they have to deal with California.”

Now, at least 10 states are taking an interest in following California’s lead. This apparently radical prospect of centering the athletes may go national even faster than 2023, the supporters behind it including legislators and coaches alike.

For women’s basketball players especially (not to mention their fans), forcing the NCAA to “deal with California” appears to be a worthwhile cause.