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‘Change agent’ Caitlin Clark prompts advertiser free-for-all: ‘She’s jump-started a new era of basketball, and she’s propelling women’s sports forward’

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Caitlin Clark’s college basketball career has come to a close, but her professional career is just getting started—and fans and brands alike are buying in.

Throughout her final college season, fans lined up to watch Clark lead the University of Iowa Hawkeyes to the women’s NCAA Tournament championship game for the second year in a row, and games repeatedly smashed viewership records.

When Clark declared for the WNBA draft in early March, prices for tickets to see the Indiana Fever, the team with the first pick in the draft, shot up. The Las Vegas Aces moved their July matchup against the Fever to a venue with nearly twice as many seats, and the CMO of the W said broadcasters were “scrambling” for the rights to Fever games this season. Not long after, the league announced that 36 of the Fever’s 40 regular season games would air on national TV.

Then there’s her NIL value. Clark, who became the all-time NCAA Division I scorer last month, had the fourth highest NIL valuation of any college athlete at the end of her time playing for Iowa, at $3.4 million, according to college sports outlet On3’s NIL 100 list. She’s already worked with a dozen brands over the past couple of years, including Gatorade, Nike, State Farm, Gainbridge, Xfinity, H&R Block, and Buick.

There’s no question that Clark is a star on the court, and perhaps one of the best collegiate basketball players in history. But her off-court performance and personality have made her a hot commodity among brands looking to share in her spotlight—and the brands that have already inked deals with her are feeling lucky, to say the least.

“I can’t imagine the volume of deals that she’s seeing,” said Minji Ro, chief strategy officer for life and annuity at the financial services company Gainbridge, which started a multiyear partnership with Clark in March and which has, since 2021, held the naming rights to the Fever’s arena. “We are thrilled, honored, beside ourselves; take your pick.”

Off the charts

The excitement from marketers may be best evidenced by the records that Clark is breaking, not just in the NCAA, but for her brand partners.

When Gatorade inked an NIL deal with Clark at the tail end of 2023, the brand’s “You Can Too” campaign quickly became its most-viewed social content across platforms, according to Brandi Ray, the brand’s head of consumer engagement. And in mid-March, Gatorade dropped a limited-edition water bottle and towel co-designed by Clark on its membership platform, which Ray said sold out in about a day.

“She literally is one of the highest-engaged athletes that we have on our roster, across our channels,” Ray told Marketing Brew.

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Gainbridge is also seeing impressive social stats associated with Clark. The day their partnership went live on the company’s social media platforms in early March, Ro said the video announcing it racked up 112,000 views, and was up to 1.8 million a month later. Working with Clark is “a different ballgame,” Ro said.

Small screen

Brands that advertised during University of Iowa games this season also saw “insane performance results,” according to Elliot Rifkin, associate director on the media buying team at TV ad agency Tatari.

“It was astronomical, the leads or the visits we got for the price that we paid for these units,” he said.

Dave Solomon, director of sports partnerships for TV ad sales company Ampersand, said that since “it’s hard to sell against cultural moments” as they happen, his team tried to help advertisers understand Clark’s importance even before she approached the NCAA scoring record.

Clark’s success has encouraged some brands to invest more in women’s college athletics across the board, Larry Mann, a former VP of sales at ESPN and founding partner at sports marketing agency rEvolution, said. It’s a change from past years, when he said some marketers expressed interest in sponsoring women’s sports but were not willing to “put that kind of money against it” when they saw the asking price.

“I think that narrative has changed with the successes of Caitlin [and] with the successes of the women’s soccer program,” Mann said. “It’s not, ‘We’re just doing it to check the box.’”

Sealing the deal

For some brands that have struck up deals with Clark, the arrangements have been a long time coming. It was during last year’s March Madness title game when Kristyn Cook, chief agency, sales, and marketing officer at State Farm, first took note of Clark as a potential brand partner, she said, especially after an interview when Clark spoke about what she hoped her legacy would be.

“She said a couple of things: She wants to make the state of Iowa proud, she wants to bring people joy, but she wants every young girl and every young boy to look up and say, ‘I can do that. I can accomplish that. I can dream big,’” Cook said. “Right then and there, I think that’s when we recognized that she would be a great partner for State Farm.”

Cook and her team reached out to Clark and her family, then traveled to Iowa to sit down to a meal with them and talk about common values and goals, Cook said. A multiyear deal—State Farm’s first NIL deal and its first deal with a woman athlete—was announced in October.

Gainbridge, meanwhile, first clocked Clark as a fit for a sponsorship late last year, Ro said, before the Fever won the draft lottery, landing them the first pick in the WNBA draft for the second year in a row.

Sweet disposition

Clark’s overall attitude and adoring fans—many of whom are younger— make her an ideal brand partner for many companies, execs told Marketing Brew.

“Not only is Caitlin one of the best collegiate basketball players today, but her character and her high standards of excellence on and off the court are what make her a perfect addition,” Ray said, adding that “she represents so much for young athletes and young consumers today, which is why she’s been so effective for us.”

Clark’s star power among young audiences is reflected more explicitly in some brand arrangements. As part of her partnership with Gainbridge, Clark is promoting an annuity product designed specifically for younger customers, Ro said. For State Farm, Clark “embodies what it means to be a good neighbor,” Cook said, and she has brand mascot Jake from State Farm’s stamp of approval.

“For a brand, you’re walking into a lot of engagement, and you’re walking into, clearly, someone that a lot of young athletes are looking up to,” said Joe Caporoso, president of sports and entertainment media company Team Whistle, which worked with Xfinity on a recent ad starring Clark. “They’re trying to emulate how she plays, and that’s exactly what you’d like as a brand.”

Bright future

With Clark’s college career concluded, some of her sponsors are hoping to follow her into the big leagues—something that isn’t unheard of in the world of NIL. Some sports marketers have predicted that NIL deals could help boost women’s sports and more niche leagues as collegiate athletes graduate into professional sports.

Execs from Gatorade, Gainbridge, and State Farm were all fairly tight-lipped about the future of their deals with Clark as she joins the WNBA, but they all have multiyear agreements with the athlete, and State Farm is already including her in its campaign around the draft. The insurance brand, the presenting sponsor of the WNBA draft, plans to spotlight Clark’s collegiate career via a digital installation in Times Square right before the draft kicks off, and is sending Jake from State Farm to attend the draft and congratulate her in person.

Even without Clark, all three brands’ work extends into the professional league: Gatorade and State Farm are both WNBA partners, and Gainbridge has a relationship with the Fever through Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

As Clark steps into the world of pro basketball, brand marketers anticipate that there’s even more room for her—and women’s sports in general—to grow.

“She’s proven to be a change agent,” Ray said. “She’s jump-started a new era of basketball, and she’s propelling women’s sports forward…We have no doubt her impact will continue as she heads into the WNBA.”

This report was initially published by Marketing Brew.





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