Aliyah Boston, a three-time Associated Press All-American First Team Selection from the University of South Carolina, was selected first overall by the Indiana Fever in the 2023 WNBA draft on April 10th. Missing from this year’s draft were two of the NCAA’s biggest stars – Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese. The two faced off in the NCAA title game in front of a sell out crowd of more than 19,000 fans, with LSU coming out on top. The game set a ratings record with an average 9.9 million viewers for the women’s championship game, and this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament has been touted as one of the best ever.
There is little doubt that both Clark and Reese would have been top picks in the WNBA draft had they been eligible. As women’s professional sports leagues continue to gain traction, league policies that require players to complete four years of collegiate play before being eligible for the draft will come under increased scrutiny. As salaries rise, and players’ profiles rise, it will be interesting to see if some players push for the WNBA’s draft policies to align more closely with those of the NBA. Complicating the calculus for female players is the advent of NIL deals that have the potential to pay collegiate players more than their professional counterparts.
The WNBA’s draft rules deem players eligible based on the earliest occurrence of either a player turning twenty-two years old the year of the draft, or having graduated from a four-year college or university, or graduating during the three-month period following the draft. International players, for WNBA purposes players who were born and reside outside of the United States, are eligible if they have had or will have their twentieth birthday during the calendar year in which the draft is held. Caitlin Clark, who was born January 22, 2002, is twenty-one years old and is thus ineligible for the WNBA draft. Angel Reese, who set a single-season NCAA record in double-doubles and helped lead LSU to the program’s first NCAA title en route to being named tournament Most Outstanding Player, is also ineligible for the draft because she will not turn twenty-one until May 6th. Both players are eligible for the 2024 WNBA draft.
Prior to the expansion of opportunities for college athletes to profit while still in school from NIL deals, there would probably be more discussion about the fairness of the WNBA’s draft rules. The NBA only requires that a player be nineteen years old during the draft calendar year, and at least one season has passed since graduation of high school. Players can play in the NCAA, abroad, or in the G League prior to the NBA draft. On3.com, a website that tracks the NIL valuation of student-athletes using an algorithm that takes into account brand value and roster value, puts Clark’s NIL valuation at $808K and Reese’s at $1.4M. Whether or not these projected earnings would hold based on individual endorsements if the players were in the WNBA and thus not able to tap into the NIL collective marketplace and trade on the brand recognition of their colleges is debatable based on the significance of collegiate fan loyalty in NIL valuations. The WNBA minimum contract for the top three picks is approximately $74K in the first year. Of course, one can argue that getting a toe hold in the premier professional league is more important than potential NIL money.
The rules surrounding the draft eligibility for female athletes tends to prioritize women completing their NCAA eligibility and earning degrees. The Premier Hockey League (PHF), the women’s hockey professional league in North America, which does not have a formal draft, requires that players be at least eighteen, but also seemingly requires that athletes from the NCAA and U Sports, the Canadian equivalent of the NCAA, graduate to be eligible. The requirement that players be over eighteen is meant to apply to international players, which in the case of the PHF excludes Canadian players and refers generally to European players coming from European leagues. The minimum salary for full-time players in the PHF is set to be $30K for the 2023-24 season.
As salaries rise for women in professional leagues, traditional reasons for ensuring women finish college may no longer make sense. However, it will be interesting to see if top NCAA women’s basketball players, and perhaps hockey players in the future, opt to stay in school regardless of draft eligibility if NIL deals continue to outpace starting salaries in North American professional leagues.
 https://www.on3.com/nil/news/about-on3-nil-valuation-per-post-value/; https://www.on3.com/nil/rankings/player/womens-nil-100/
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