As they emerged from the WNBA Draft as top-8 picks, former Oregon Ducks women’s basketball players Sabrinia Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard displayed more than just talent on the court.
The three former Oregon stars will make their professional debuts this weekend when the WNBA season officially opens a pandemic-delayed regular season. Their efforts on social media during their collegiate careers also set them up to capitalize on the audience they built at Oregon via endorsements using their Name, Image & Likeness (NIL).
As the NCAA moves toward legislation to allow such monetization at the collegiate level, it is important to note that the Oregon players could have had substantial opportunities while suiting up for the Ducks.
No. 1 overall WNBA pick Sabrina Ionescu, selected by the New York Liberty, built a following of more than 476,000 on Instagram and more than 76,000 on Twitter as a collegiate player. As she entered the WNBA as the reigning national collegiate player of the year, that following helped her sign an endorsement deal with Nike (terms undisclosed), which she announced via Instagram.
“A common misconception is that NIL rules changes will benefit only football and men’s basketball players,” said INFLCR founder and CEO Jim Cavale.
“The reality is that women collegiate athletes can also create significant value for themselves through social-media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, TikTok and others.”
INFLCR’s NIL team, led by former ESPN and Dallas Cowboys content leader and INFLCR COO Neeta Sreekanth, created a multi-dimensional formula to assess athletes’ per-post value for branded content on social media. Sreekanth and her team have also had the benefit of data from more than 22,000 current student-athlete users who rely on INFLCR to grow their social brand organically.
INFLCR’s formula takes into account a variety of factors beyond followers on social media, such as team performance, sport played, and size of the conference, and has been established to help INFLCR clients and other collegiate athletic programs understand the impact and opportunities that NIL may provide for their athletes.
Combining INFLCR’s approach with methodology established by INFLCR partner Athletic Director University (ADU) and Navigate Research that valued each Instagram follower at $0.80, the NIL team also reviewed the potential annual advertising value for the University of Oregon, specifically the members of the 2019-20 Oregon women’s basketball team.
2019-2020 Oregon Women’s Basketball Roster: NIL Valuation
At the top is a star athlete such as Ionescu, with a following of more than 476,000 on Instagram as she left Oregon. This represents an audience total valued at more than $380,000 annually. Her audience as she entered the WNBA could have commanded a per-post rate of more than $15,000, according to the INFLCR formula.
Ionescu is a generational talent — the first NCAA women’s player to amass more than 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists. Her social-media following is also among the highest-valued among women — or men — athletes in college sports.
“Sabrina would be one of the most sought-after athletes in all of college sports if she had been able to capitalize on NIL opportunities at Oregon,” Cavale said.
Ionescu is an outlier among collegiate athletes in any sport, but Oregon teammate and No. 2 overall pick Satou Sabally also has opportunities. She enters the WNBA with the Dallas Wings with more than 21,000 followers on Instagram, an audience valued at more than $17,000.
Hebard, the No. 8 overall pick of the Chicago Sky, had an audience valued at more than $14,000.
At the bottom, a player having as few as 5,000 followers could potentially command a rate of more than $135 per post on Instagram.
The players on the Oregon roster had a combined Instagram following of 700,000, an audience estimated at more than $560,000 in annual advertising value.
The same players had a combined audience of 120,000 on Twitter, representing a cumulative audience value of more than $94,000.
Collectively this represents more than $650,000 in value that could have been available to student-athletes on the Oregon women’s basketball team.
There is potential for significant revenue for top-line NCAA players, but the INFLCR review of Oregon’s following found that even those players who have not yet established stardom on the court or large followings on social media could potentially create revenue opportunities for themselves.
“Ionescu’s incredible popularity on social can skew the team totals, but it’s important to note that four of Oregon’s returning players for 2020-21 have already built personal brands whose audience levels could command more than $250 per sponsored post,” Cavale said.
How Athletes Will Develop Their Social Media Valuation
As the NIL landscape evolves, the numbers make it clear that many athletes will arrive on their college campuses with a potential value already established. They are social-media natives, having grown up on the technology, and they understand through the many examples within their own timelines of those they follow how there are financial rewards to be attained through building follower counts.
Moving onto the stage that is collegiate athletics, within the team brand they represent, will add value to their audience and increase their opportunity to both grow their following and their bank account — either at the next level like the new Oregon alumni in the WNBA or at the collegiate level when NIL rules are finalized and implemented.
For others, the spotlight of college athletics will provide the opportunity to exponentially grow their following after they arrive on campus. A follower total of a few hundreds can grow quickly for an athlete when they sign with a college as a recruit, or begin to make plays and gain more notoriety on the field of court.
But follower totals are not created equal. Cavale says any strategy for an athlete must be centered around compelling, unpaid editorial storytelling.
“The student-athletes have always been able to share content editorially — without money being exchanged — and they will continue to be able to do so no matter how the rules ultimately are set,” Cavale said. “In order to create value for themselves, they must build an audience that is engaged. You don’t do that with campaigns. You do that by posting great content organically and engaging with your followers as you tell your story.”
This is where INFLCR comes in; the software and mobile app 100+ NCAA programs like Oregon to easily distribute content from team and national-media sources directly to the players’ phones in real time. When Ducks athletes leave the court, they find their phones stocked with content in their personalized galleries within their INFLCR app to tell the story of the big moments they create.
Easy access to the content allows the athletes to post more frequently and more timely, such as in the aftermath of big victories when the fan base is most engaged on social media. Paid posts without this foundation of organic storytelling simply won’t be as effective, he says, and ultimately will not achieve maximum value for either the athlete or the brand he or she represents.
“Ninety percent [or more] of an athlete’s social media posts should be organic or editorial storytelling with no monetization,” Cavale said. “That leaves the other 10 percent or so to partner with sponsors. These organic, unpaid posts are much more powerful and authentic, within the context of the team they represent and the programming the athletes’ followers are accustomed to seeing. By being proactive with editorial storytelling, this will increase the value for the athlete and the engagement around sponsored posts.
“For schools like Oregon, this represents a win-win. It helps the athletes — and their success becomes an important story to tell recruits — and it also elevates the exposure for the team brand significantly. NIL may have a lot of questions still to be answered in terms of how it will be legislated and monitored, but the baseline for how to be successful with it — editorial storytelling — is not going to change.”