Caitlin and Angel: Battle of the brands

Dan Piller was a business reporter for more than four decades, working for the Des Moines Register and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He covered the oil and gas industry while in Texas and was the Register’s agriculture reporter before his retirement in 2013. He lives in Ankeny.

The overheated commentary in the aftermath of the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four has focused on race: the mostly-white Iowa women led by Caitlin Clark against the Black women from South Carolina and Louisiana State University.

Many saw racial overtones in the critiques of LSU player Angel Reese’s gestures toward Clark near the end of the championship game. Reese noted at the post-game press conference that all season, people have tried to “put her in a box” and said she’s “too hood” and “ghetto.” (Clark said in a later interview she didn’t “think Angel should be criticized at all,” adding that trash talk is part of the game.)

Race is always present in sports culture. But with today’s college athletes, a new factor has arisen that may be even bigger.

It’s money. The Iowa-LSU game coincided with a new era, where college athletes at long last are getting a share of what has been a rich marketing pie. Clark and Reese competed for their schools and states, to be sure, but it was also a battle of brands.

One brand is white, the other Black. So again, we’ll see how much difference it makes.


When Clark walked onto the court Sunday in Dallas, she already was under endorsement contracts worth an estimated $192,000 with companies including Buick, Goldman Sachs, and Nike. According to credible published reports, she has a net worth in excess of $1 million, and she has two more years of eligibility with the Hawkeyes (one extra, due to the COVID-19 pandemic). We’ll likely see a lot of Clark not only on the court, but on our screens and in print.

LSU’s Reese has picked up the semi-endearing nickname of “Bayou Barbie,” has more than a million TikTok and Instagram followers, and no fewer than seventeen endorsement deals with the likes Bose, JanSport, and Coach. But she doesn’t yet have a shoe deal, an omission likely to change soon. Endorsement accounting indicates that Reese has so far banked $392,000.

Clark has some advantages in the endorsement race so far. She started building a name in the suburbs of Des Moines and stayed near home for play for her state university. The 20-year-old Reese is a year younger than Clark. Reese grew up in Baltimore and began her college career at Maryland before transferring to LSU this year, which has given her less time to build the kind of brand that Clark has spent several years establishing.

Even so, a confident elite athlete like Reese has every reason to expect to become the next commercial superstar. She would be less than human if she didn’t look at her rival from Iowa as a brand to be vanquished, and signaled so at the end of the game. Reese’s edgy comments reflected a new reality in college athletics: the final score means more than bragging rights. It also is the inside track to commercial riches, provide the marketplace playing field is level.


More than a hundred years after preppy Ivy Leaguers began throwing and kicking around balls, college athletes are finally able be paid in the open under a new NCAA category called “Name, Identification and Likeness” (NIL).

NIL makes legal what has long existed beneath the surface in college sports: the payments to college athletes for bringing fans through stadium and arena turnstiles and boosted television audiences. Athletes can be paid to endorse companies, products or causes.

NIL came about through a variety of factors. Fans of their favorite state university who followed the bewildering realignments of major conferences in the last decade couldn’t help but notice that conferences such as the Big Ten, in which Iowa resides, and the Big 12, Iowa State’s lair, were getting long-term TV contracts measured no longer in million of dollars, but billions, to televise those Rivalry Saturday football and March Madness basketball games.

But like Republican economics, none of that trickled down to the athletes who, after all, were the main attraction. Since most of those athletes come from middle to lower-middle class backgrounds, the traditional under-the-table inducements from boosters were a long-established tradition in college athletics that the sports’ governors were powerless to stop.

NIL money flows to athletes initially from local sponsors, such as car dealerships, grocers, restaurants, and clothing stores that want their names associated with the high-profile athletes at the favorite State U. But as Caitlin Clark has demonstrated, national brands are coming into the market. When they do, the sky is the limit.


Since the Gillette shaving company figured out in the early 1950s that sponsoring the World Series telecasts was a great way to reach the American male audience, endorsements by athletes have been a familiar part of the sports landscape. In the 1960s, golfer Arnold Palmer was the first athlete to make his name into a lucrative brand.

Black athletes who followed Jackie Robinson in baseball and other professional team sports in the 1960s discovered that while they could quickly establish dominance on the playing field, they were benched when commercial endorsements were handed out. White athletes such as Mickey Mantle in baseball, Frank Gifford in football, and Arnold Palmer in golf were familiar figures on television and product packaging a half century ago. Meanwhile, Black stars such as Willie Mays in baseball, Jim Brown in football, and Bill Russell in basketball trailed far behind.

That disparity began to change in the 1970s when O.J. Simpson, of all people, and his sprint through the airport terminal for a rental car company proved conclusively that black athletes made perfectly good pitchmen. By the early 1990s, Michael Jordan became an economy unto himself with his Nike branded shoes. Later that decade, Tiger Woods became an instant multimillionaire with Nike and other brands.

Predictably, women professional athletes were short-changed, primarily because female professional sports leagues lagged behind in marketing and television power. The few female athletes who did achieve some semblance of endorsement juice, such as golfer Jan Stephenson, were chosen as much for their appearance as playing ability.

Today, NIL coincides with a new level of maturity for women’s college athletics now enjoying a growth spurt a half-century after the passage of Title IX. Ticket-buying spectators have learned that women’s games, particularly basketball and volleyball, are just as compelling as the men.

As endorsers, college women may have an advantage over men. Any sociologist or campus security official will attest that 18- to 22-year old women are less likely than men to have issues with drugs, alcohol or sexual misbehavior. A local business thinking about forking over tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to endorse an athlete (or an entire squad) might consider high-profile women’s athletes less of a risk. While the sex appeal factor is less heated than in past eras, it still doesn’t hurt that the females are attractive and in excellent physical condition.

The big question is whether Black college athletes will endure a similar lag in endorsements as their professional forebears did pre-Michael Jordan. So far, Angel Reese has earned more from endorsements than Caitlin Clark, but Madison Avenue’s penchant for suburban Midwestern wholesomeness may give the Iowa star a racial advantage.

Another point in Clark’s favor: the absence of professional major league sports in Iowa has meant that from the days of Nile Kinnick before World War II, athletes at Iowa’s Regents universities have been the face the state has presented to the wider sports world.

Top photo of Caitlin Clark first published on the University of Iowa’s Hawkeye Sports website.

About the Author(s)

Dan Piller

  • Recognizing Iowa's Own Brand

    When it comes to endorsement-worthy and recognized Iowa athletes, Shawn Johnson, Fred Hoiberg, Zach Johnson, Kurt Warner, and now Caitlin Clark come to mind. They certainly have that Iowa wholesome/Iowa nice look, with good back stories as well as persona — I have rooted for all. But lowa also is home to the highest paid of all Iowa athletes, Harrison Barnes, an Olympic gold medalist and NBA championship ring-holder to boot. And Gabby Douglas and LoLo Jones. Most states can’t provide a better set of athletic role models. In addition to their athletic prowess, Iowa’s most famous athletes give back in their community service and their own substantial philanthropy (often directed to kids). I think Iowa can be proud of both the color and character of this group. And, while it may have taken Fred Hoiberg 628 NBA games as player or coach, he even showed enough trash-talking moxie to finally earn a technical foul.