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Myth or reality: Will Caitlin Clark take a pay cut going to the WNBA?

The scorching-hot takes started flying even before Caitlin Clark hoisted her first impossibly deep 3-pointer this season.

On college basketball's opening day last November, TNT's studio commentators speculated that Clark could earn more money by returning to Iowa for a fifth season than by beginning her pro career as the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick this spring.

“She’s going to have to take a pay cut when she goes to the WNBA,” 14-year NBA veteran Brendan Haywood confidently declared.

Renee Montgomery, a former WNBA all-star and current part-owner of the Atlanta Dream, lent credibility to Haywood when she laughed and responded, “It’s an unfortunate fact.”

That school of thought has lingered all season as Clark has starred in commercials, sold out Big Ten arenas and drawn unprecedented TV ratings. As recently as earlier this week, WNBA legend Candace Parker questioned if Clark could "make the same amount or more if she stays at Iowa" and said, "Why not milk that another year?"

On Thursday afternoon, three days before Iowa's final regular-season home game this season, Clark made a decision that suggests she doesn't think that turning pro will diminish her earning power. The leading scorer in NCAA women's basketball history announced on social media that she will not return to Iowa for her extra COVID year of eligibility and will instead enter the 2024 WNBA Draft.

Nowhere in Clark's 129-word statement did she address the financial element of her decision, but she herself has previously shot down the idea that she'd be taking a pay cut in the WNBA. When Dan Patrick asked Clark directly about that last year, she told him, "I think people don't understand that NIL is still a thing when you get into pro sports too."

So is there actually any truth to the idea that Clark will make less money as a professional? Do top women’s basketball prospects have incentive to remain in college into their mid-20s before begrudgingly leaving for the WNBA?

To answer that question, Yahoo Sports sought the opinions of sports marketing executives, agents and players who have recently been through the stay-or-go decision. Their answers provide some nuance to a conversation that at times has glaringly lacked it.

Clark already reps major brands

The easiest misconception to clear up is the notion that the endorsements Clark has secured during her record-setting college career will vanish when she turns pro.

That’s highly unlikely considering how those deals originated and how Clark’s star power has continued to soar.

While many top college athletes receive payouts or endorsements opportunities from multimillion-dollar groups of donors and alumni, Clark apparently isn't one of them. She "hasn't taken a dime" from Iowa's primary collective, CEO Brad Heinrichs told the Wall Street Journal in February.

Clark has been negotiating her own deals since the introduction of new NIL laws the summer after she averaged 26.6 points per game as an Iowa freshman. By the end of her sophomore season, she had what her dad described to Yahoo Sports then as "substantial" partnerships with H&R Block and Hy-Vee, a Midwestern chain of supermarkets.

Even bigger national brands sought to partner with Clark after she led Iowa to the national title game last season and swept the major national player of the year awards. With the help of Excel Sports Management, Clark has landed deals with State Farm, Gatorade, Nike and Buick, among others.

In November, State Farm released a pair of commercials featuring Clark, one co-starring Jimmy Butler and Reggie Miller and the other one pairing her with sideline reporter Jenny Taft. Clark also starred in a Gatorade commercial, graced the front of a cereal box and appeared on the "ManningCast" during a Monday Night Football game between the Eagles and her beloved Chiefs.

It's unclear exactly how much Clark makes from her NIL deals because neither she nor the companies she represents have specified. On3.com has estimated Clark will make about $910,000 from NIL deals this school year, a number that some industry experts suspect could be too low.

Whatever the real number, sports marketing executive Sara Gotfredson suspects that Clark will earn more endorsement money her first year as a pro. Gotfredson says she has “seen brands get behind WNBA players over the last few years in a bigger way than ever before,” pointing to Sabrina Ionescu as a prime example.

Last November, Ionescu launched her first signature shoe-apparel collection with Nike. The former NCAA triple-double queen also endorses Body Armor, State Farm and Xbox and appears on the cover of this year's NBA 2K24 WNBA edition. During NBA all-star weekend in February, Ionescu also had the chance to further build her fan base when she competed against Steph Curry in a 3-point shootout.

"So I don't know that I agree with the theory that college basketball is a bigger platform than the W," said Gotfredson, founder of the Trailblazing Group, a Los Angeles-based marketing firm that specializes in commercial partnerships in women's sports.

“The college platform is great. I love that it has exploded. But I also think that it’s a springboard to doing great things on the professional level. I think the dollars will absolutely follow. I would bet money that Caitlin will make more in the W than she did in college.”

Not so fast, says Tim Derdenger, a Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business professor who specializes in sports marketing and endorsements. Clark would be "substantially better off" staying at Iowa for a fifth year, Derdenger argues, than entering the WNBA Draft.

The rookie salary for a top-four pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft is $76,535. That means Clark, like many WNBA players, is likely to earn most of her income via business opportunities away from the court.

While Derdenger concedes that brands that have already partnered with Clark won’t abandon her now that she’s entering the WNBA, he says that new deals she lands won’t be as lucrative. The reason, he says, is that the WNBA doesn’t have as large an audience as women’s college basketball.

The 2023 women’s NCAA championship game pitting Iowa against star-studded LSU drew an average of nearly 10 million viewers. Six months later, the 2023 WNBA Finals averaged 728,000 viewers per game, the league’s most-watched finals in 20 years but still nowhere close to what Clark vs. Angel Reese drew.

“Endorsement deals in general pay out based on eyeballs,” Derdenger said. “The more eyeballs that are on Caitlin, the more brands that will want to come to her. So the question she has to ask herself is whether she’s going to have more viewers in the WNBA or at Iowa. TV viewership is up tremendously in the women’s college game. Women’s college basketball has more eyeballs right now than the WNBA does.”

Is there more money in staying or going?

Caitlin Clark isn’t the only women’s college basketball star who has agonized over the decision whether to turn pro or take advantage of an extra year of college eligibility. The introduction of new NIL opportunities for college athletes has made this a difficult choice for any WNBA hopeful with college eligibility remaining.

Last March, the UCLA women’s basketball team’s season ended abruptly with a Sweet 16 loss to top-ranked South Carolina. Senior guard Charisma Osborne didn’t have more than a couple hours to mourn that setback before she had to start weighing whether or not that was her final college game.

In a hotel room in Greenville, South Carolina, Osborne sat down by herself to make a pros and cons list. Feedback from WNBA teams suggested that they viewed Osborne as a potential late first-round pick, but UCLA also had realistic Final Four hopes if she returned with the core of the 2022-23 team due back and heralded transfer Lauren Betts becoming eligible.

Chasing a national title, Osborne says, is the “biggest reason” she came back for a fifth season at UCLA, but the chance to earn NIL money was also a “big pro.” Osborne estimates that she has earned almost $70,000 so far this year at UCLA from deals with various small businesses. That’s comparable to the salary she’d have made as a WNBA rookie if she was able to secure a roster spot.

“Being able to make money made the decision a lot easier,” Osborne said. “In the years before, people were coming back only to try to win a championship or to get another degree, but being able to do all three was really cool.”

Two other projected first-round picks besides Osborne also chose not to enter the WNBA Draft last spring. Virginia Tech center Elizabeth Kitley took advantage of her extra year via the COVID waiver, as did Tennessee wing Rickea Jackson.

Early indications suggest that trend may have staying power this year. Former national college player of the year Paige Bueckers announced during UConn’s senior night festivities that she’s returning to campus for another year. Fellow projected top-five pick Cameron Brink of Stanford has said she remains undecided, as has LSU forward Angel Reese.

Last April, Reese told the I Am Athlete podcast that she's "in no rush to go to the league."

“The money I’m making,” she added, “is more than some of the people that are in the league that might be top players.”

That might be true now, but it doesn’t have to be forever. Stars like Clark, Reese and Bueckers have the chance to change the calculus. Their challenge will be to raise the profile of the WNBA the way they already have for women’s college basketball.

Clark has sold out games or broken attendance records almost everywhere she has played so far this season. The get-in price was nearly $400 per ticket to see her break the NCAA career scoring record last month.

Those who can’t watch the Caitlin show in person have tuned into Iowa telecasts in record numbers. The three most watched women’s college games since 2010 each occurred this season. The top two pitted Iowa against a fellow Big Ten power. The third was a tight game between reigning national champ LSU and unbeaten South Carolina.

The WNBA, to its credit, seems to realize the significance of Iowa’s incandescent star beginning her pro career. Already, the league had announced plans to invite fans to attend the draft for the first time in league history. Then on Thursday, within minutes of Clark’s announcement, the Indiana Fever posted a reminder that they own the No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft and a link where fans can purchase season tickets.

Ticket sales are already booming if Indiana guard Erica Wheeler’s comments are any indication.