Analyzing the potential of basketball players' name, image and likeness rights through the lens of Instagram and the Sweet 16
Nine of the 11 starters with the largest followings on Instagram and whose teams remain in the men's or women's NCAA tournament are women.
The biggest story of the 2021 men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments has been the inequities between the two tournaments, ranging from the most serious of disparities (the plans for the COVID-19 testing at each site) to the most inconsequential, but still incredibly telling difference (the number of pieces in the puzzles provided to men’s and women’s players). The second-biggest story of the 2021 NCAA Tournaments has been the #NotNCAAProperty movement, in which a group of men’s basketball players asked – among other requests – for the NCAA to allow college athletes to obtain representation and pay for the use of their individual name, image and likeness (NIL) by July 1, 2021. Michigan’s Isaiah Livers, who has been a prominent figure in the movement, has worn a shirt bearing the hashtag during his team’s games.
Those two stories – the inequities between the two basketball tournaments and athletes’ pursuit of full control of their NIL rights – are arguably connected, even if only loosely and indirectly. Based on an analysis by Out of Bounds, the women’s basketball players who started in the second round of the NCAA tournament for a team that’s now in the Sweet 16 have an average of roughly 32,000 Instagram followers per player, compared to their male counterparts who have been starters in the men’s NCAA tournament, who have an average of roughly 18,100 followers.
Athletes across all sports are potentially affected by the rules that prevent their ability to monetize their NIL, but many of the women who are starters for teams competing in the 2021 NCAA Tournament potentially have greater earning power than the starters in the men’s NCAA tournament, based on their respective social media followings, and whether their potential and relative advantage in earning potential is defined as a higher ceiling, a higher floor, or a higher average or median earning potential – if not all of the above.
Below is a list of the 35 starters across the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments (defined as players who started their team’s last game) who have at least 20,000 followers on Instagram. Sixteen, including nine of the top 11, are women.
Using as a guide the NIL study from AthleticDirectorU and Navigate Research, which calculated an average annual value of $0.80 per Instagram follower after analyzing the endorsement portfolios of professional athletes, we can also estimate an athlete’s annual earning potential from theoretical endorsements by multiplying his or her number of Instagram followers by $0.80.
Note: For accounts with at least 10,000 followers but less than 100,000 followers, Instagram rounds to the nearest hundred followers. For accounts with at least 100,000 followers, Instagram rounds to the nearest thousand followers. Follower counts are current as of March 25, 2021. Instagram follower data was unavailable for one of the 160 players analyzed.
women’s basketball player/men’s basketball player: Instagram followers (estimated annual earning potential based on $0.80 per follower)
1. Paige Bueckers, UConn: 685,000 followers ($548,000)
2. Hailey Van Lith, Louisville: 673,000 followers ($538,400)
3. Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga: 304,000 followers ($243,200)
4. Zia Cooke, South Carolina: 193,000 followers ($154,400)
5. Sedona Prince, Oregon: 94,400 followers ($75,520)
6. Cameron Brink, Stanford: 88,000 followers ($70,400)
7. Olivia Nelson-Ododa, UConn: 72,700 followers ($58,160)
8. Anna Wilson, Stanford: 66,700 followers ($53,360)
9. Brea Beal, South Carolina: 64,700 followers ($51,760)
T10. Destanni Henderson, South Carolina; John Petty, Alabama: 61,000 followers ($48,800)
12. Joseph Girard III, Syracuse: 57,900 followers ($46,320)
13. Evan Mobley, USC: 57,300 followers ($45,840)
14. Quentin Grimes, Houston: 51,100 followers ($40,880)
15. Tyger Campbell, UCLA: 47,400 followers ($37,920)
16. Johnny Juzang, UCLA: 44,800 followers ($35,840)
17. Drew Timme, Gonzaga: 44,100 followers ($35,280)
18. Hailey Brown, Michigan: 37,800 followers ($30,240)
19. Moses Moody, Arkansas: 36,900 ($29,520)
20. DiDi Richards, Baylor: 33,800 followers ($27,040)
T21. Christyn Williams, UConn; Hunter Dickinson, Michigan: 32,600 followers ($26,080)
23. Caitlin Clark, Iowa: 31,900 followers ($25,520)
24. Buddy Boeheim, Syracuse: 29,800 followers ($23,840)
25. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova: 27,200 followers ($21,760)
26. Isaiah Mobley, USC: 24,800 followers ($19,840)
27. Franz Wagner, Michigan: 24,400 followers ($19,520)
T28. Evina Westbrook, UConn; Dana Evans, Louisville; Jared Butler, Baylor: 24,200 followers ($19,360)
31. Corey Kispert, Gonzaga: 23,200 followers ($18,560)
32. Davonte Davis, Arkansas: 23,000 followers ($18,400)
33. Herb Jones, Alabama: 21,700 followers ($17,360)
34. Aaliyah Boston, South Carolina: 21,100 followers ($16,800)
35. DeJon Jarreau, Houston: 20,200 followers ($16,160)
Not only are there two starters in the women’s NCAA tournament – UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith – who have more than double the number of Instagram followers as the remaining starter in the men’s NCAA tournament who has the largest following on Instagram – Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs – but there are also nine women’s players who have a larger (or equal) following as the men’s starter with the second-largest following (Alabama’s John Petty).
If you believe there’s a direct and consistent correlation between Instagram followers and earning potential from endorsements, then the group of athletes in San Antonio – the ones who were each given a 150-piece puzzle for entertainment and a “weight room” that would be disappointing if it was found at a low-budget motel – arguably includes the athletes who have the greater earning potential in a head-to-head comparison between the Sweet 16 fields in the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments this year.
How much does individual production matter and for whom does it matter?
If you round up Syracuse guard Joseph Girard III’s scoring average of 9.7 points per game to 10 points, there’s not a single starter remaining in the men’s NCAA tournament who has at least 25,000 Instagram followers who doesn’t also average at least 10 points per game. While individual success for a men’s basketball player doesn’t guarantee a high number of followers on social media platforms – see: the nation’s leading scorer in the men’s game, Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas (24.6 points per game, 8,975 followers) or his teammate Kevin Obanor (19 points per game, 6,750 followers) – an analysis of the 80 men’s basketball starters examined tells us that it’s difficult, or at least rare, for a men’s basketball player to build a large following without a fairly high level of on-court success.
However, there are numerous examples of women’s basketball players who have built large followings without needing to be a double-figure scorer. And some of the athletes who have been able to do both – average impressive individual statistics and build their brand – have follower counts that are well into the hundreds of thousands.
Click the image below to open an interactive version of the graphic in a new window.
This is yet another reminder that there won’t be a one-to-one correlation between talent/production and earning potential – at least when it comes to sponsored social media posts – when athletes are allowed to monetize their NIL. It’s also a sign that past estimates that only one or two percent of athletes have commercial value – a line that has been used by former Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, for example, among others – could be off the mark. At the very least, the top earners won’t necessarily be the same group of athletes that NIL naysayers speculated they would be.
When you split the data in the scatter plot above into two different scatter plots, with one for men and one for women, it becomes more evident that meaningful contributors in women’s basketball – starters in the NCAA tournament – have often built larger social media followings than men’s basketball players, and being a double-figure scorer, let alone someone who averages close to 20 points per game, is not a barrier to entry to social media stardom for women in the same way it appears to be for men.
Below is a scatter plot that shows win shares per 40 minutes on the x-axis and Instagram followers on the y-axis for the 80 men’s basketball starters in the Sweet 16.
Sports Reference defines win shares as “an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his offense and defense,” and win shares per 40 minutes adjusts for how many wins a player contributes for the equivalent of every full, 40-minute game he has played this season. This is arguably a better metric to judge a player’s value on the court than raw points per game, and with several exceptions, the greater a player’s win shares per 40 minutes, the greater his potential Instagram following – aside from a few exceptions.
Some of those “exceptions” can likely be explained by the players’ former statuses as high school recruits. Even though Syracuse guard Joseph Girard III (the top-left data point above) was just a 3-star recruit who was ranked No. 202 nationally in the 2019 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, he scored 4,329 points in his high school career, breaking a state of New York scoring record that was set by former NBA veteran Lance Stephenson. Girard was a native of Glens Falls, New York, from where former BYU star Jimmer Fredette also hails, and the former averaged roughly 50 points per game as a high school junior and senior.
That’s how a former 3-star recruit ranked outside of the top 200 nationally in his recruiting class has nearly 60,000 Instagram followers. But Girard is the exception among the men’s basketball players examined. Every other player analyzed who has at least 30,000 Instagram followers is a former top-100 recruit and many were ranked in the top 50. Based on this data set from the Sweet 16, if you’re a men’s college basketball player who wants to maximize your social media following, you probably need to be a starter for a major program who is either a former top-100 recruit or someone who averages double figures in points per game, if not both.
It’s also worth noting that roughly a quarter men’s basketball players who started in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and who played on a team that won, didn’t have a 247Sports Composite ranking as a high school recruit. Just as coaches can discover under-recruited players with potential, so too can previously unheralded players develop a significant following on social media.
Take someone like Michigan’s Mike Smith (18,800 Instagram followers), for example, who arrived in Ann Arbor by way of Columbia, or Oregon’s Chris Duarte (14,700) and LJ Figueroa (12,600), both of whom previously competed in the JUCO ranks.
Be careful before correlating market size to earning potential
The teams in the Sweet 16 in the 2021 NCAA Tournaments include multiple programs from Los Angeles, plus a school from Chicago and one from Houston. Those are three of the four largest cities in the U.S., yet the basketball program whose starters have the highest average number of Instagram followers is the one based in Storrs, Connecticut – a place with a population that has climbed over 15,000, with a median household income of roughly $27,000 and a 43-percent poverty rate, according to the United States Census Bureau.
That’s the UConn women’s basketball program, by the way. On average, the Huskies’ starters have 164,526 Instagram followers, or almost 11 times the number of people who lived in Storrs in 2010. That average is obviously influenced in large part by Paige Bueckers’ 685,000 followers but four of the team’s five starters have more than 20,000 followers on Instagram. As shown by the purple bars in the bar graph below, women’s basketball programs are responsible for five of the six highest Instagram-followers-per-starter averages among the 32 programs remaining in the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments.
The Louisville women’s basketball program, which is located in its namesake city, which ranks somewhere between the 28th and 30th-biggest city in the country depending on the year, checks in at No. 2 among the 32 Sweet 16 teams examined, as the Cardinals’ starters have an average of more than 140,000 Instagram followers.
While UCLA – a men’s basketball blue blood that’s located in L.A. – has a starting five that averages more than 25,000 Instagram followers per starter, the Bruins still trail Gonzaga and numerous women’s programs that are also in the Sweet 16.
The graphic below shows city population on the x-axis and undergraduate enrollment on the y-axis.
Perhaps market size will prove to matter more for more traditional forms of media or endorsement categories that require a higher level of production and professional connections, such as television commercials, acting, music production or modeling. But take one look at the Instagram followings for the No. 1-seeded women in Storrs, Connecticut, and the No. 1-seeded men in Spokane, Washington, and that should dispel any notion that market size alone will determine earning potential.
Similar to how one of the previous scatter plots established that the production for a women’s basketball player could enhance, but not universally limit, her social media following, you could posit that market size could have a similar effect. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be a nationally relevant player at a Los Angeles-based school, but it’s also not required to capitalize on one’s earning potential.
After NCAA President Mark Emmert meets virtually with the athletes behind the #NotNCAAProperty movement after the men’s NCAA tournament and after the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments for NCAA v. Alston, regarding the NCAA’s restrictions on athlete compensation, conjectures about the roles of market size, recruiting rankings and individual performance in regards to NIL earning potential will soon be replaced with relevant findings from real transactions.
But until then, we’re left to analyze the data that is available, and that data suggests the athletes who were by all accounts allocated lesser COVID-19 testing, weight rooms, meals and swag bags for the NCAA tournament are also some of the athletes who have the most to gain from their NIL.
Recap of last week’s newsletter
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“Given how this academic year has gone in the Big Ten, how much transparency could you expect, especially when the questions asked of its leaders were about the conference’s own lack of transparency?”
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