Kentucky Wildcats women's basketball guard Rhyne Howard driving toward the basket against the South Carolina Gamecocks
All-American Rhyne Howard represents the Kentucky Wildcats on Boardroom’s All-NIL Team. (John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
STUDENT ATHLETES PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

The Boardroom Women’s March Madness All-NIL Team

Which players in this year’s NCAA women’s tournament have used the new name, image, and likeness rules to do something unique and impactful?

Take a look at your Women’s NCAA Tournament bracket. Just by scanning the teams, a few players will instantly come to mind. When you look at the Bridgeport Region and see UConn hidden in that lower right corner, you probably think of Paige Bueckers. Shift your eyes toward Kentucky and Rhyne Howard stands out. South Carolina? Well, that’s Aliyah Boston.

Perhaps more than ever, the players are the stars right now in women’s basketball. And it’s all good timing, because we’re still in the first full year during which college athletes can profit off their name, image, and likeness rights. Hundreds of student-athletes in this tournament alone have taken advantage in some form since the NCAA altered its policy last summer, so selecting from that increasingly impressive list in order to form the first-ever women’s basketball “All-NIL Team” ahead of March Madness was particularly difficult.

Whether it’s signing big deals, bringing something unique to the table, or inspiring generations of college athletes to come, here’s our curated list of the superstars paving the way.

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Boardroom’s Women’s NCAA Tournament NIL All-Stars

Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

Notable Deals: Bojangles, Bose, ProSolar

As Boardroom discussed this week, Boston and Bose are helping South Carolina drown out the noise as the Gamecocks chase their second national championship. She’s the first woman athlete to sign with the company — which brought on a throng of football players last year — and joins Wendell Moore (Duke) and Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga) among its basketball class of 2022.

What the Bose deal represents, however, is even more important.

It hasn’t exactly been a secret that Boston, who is Black, doesn’t receive the same amount of publicity as many players on other teams who happen to be white, all despite Boston being the likely National Player of the Year. Bose tapping Boston first is significant, especially considering this is her most high-profile deal. (Her “shirzee” sold out Monday as part of a time-wide partnership with Under Armour.)

Expect other brands to come on board in a hurry, though. South Carolina has a clear path to the Elite Eight where a showdown with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark — the only other realistic POY candidate — awaits. Boston will be the headliner on the Gamecocks’ side, and if they reach the Final Four, will have a great shot at adding a Final Four MOP to her list of accolades.

Paige Bueckers, UConn

Notable Deals: StockX, Gatorade, CashApp

The sophomore superstar missed most of the season with a knee injury but returned in the last few weeks as she slowly worked her way back to full strength in time for the big dance. When she takes the court for the Huskies on Saturday against Mercer in the First Round, she will look to re-establish herself as the face of women’s college basketball.

While she didn’t jump on the NIL train as quickly as others, she made waves over the summer by trademarking her nickname, Paige Buckets. Since then, the deals she has signed have all been major.

She became Gatorade’s first-ever college athlete, signed on with StockX (and gifted her entire team some new shoes in the process), and gave fans $100,000 through her deal with CashApp. CashApp is also helping her start up the Paige Bueckers Foundation, which Forbes says will “broadly focus on creating opportunities for children and families and promoting social justice.”

Azzi Fudd, UConn

Notable Deals: SC30, Chipotle, BioSteel, TikTok, TIAA, Totinos

What makes Fudd’s off-court brand unique is her deal with Stephen Curry’s SC30 brand. She was the first college player to sign with a pro athlete’s brand, linking the two stars with similarly deadly three-point shots.

Fudd and Curry have known each other for a while — she attended his All-American camp as a high school student, and Curry has kept following her game ever since.

“I think [Fudd] has more of a textbook jumper than anyone I’ve seen,” he told ESPN in November 2020 when she first committed to the Huskies.

But Fudd was making NIL inroads even before the Curry announcement in December. In fact, there’s a chance you’ve seen more of her away from court than any other women’s college basketball player.

Case in point: This TikTok commercial with Allen Iverson.

The title of the video says it all. That’s Fudd in the thumbnail, stealing the spotlight from A.I.

(Maybe that’s just a UConn-Georgetown thing.)

Destanni Henderson, South Carolina

Notable Venture: Clothing by HP

Henderson has signed a few NIL deals so far, as you would expect from a double-digit-scoring senior on the No. 1 team in the country. That’s not what earns her a spot on this list, though.

The 5-foot-7 guard launched her own clothing line in 2021, Hennything’s Possible. No, this is not what you’ll see from some athletes, who put their nickname or catchphrase on a t-shirt and call it a day. Henderson has launched a bona fide line of premium streetwear that includes hoodies, graphic tees, shorts, and pants.

As the engine that makes South Carolina go, Henderson has set herself up nicely to be a late first-round or early second-round pick in the WNBA Draft. She won’t be in the NIL game for much longer, but that’s just bookkeeping at this point. She’ll keep selling her clothing and will have a new fanbase to introduce the line to come April.

Rhyne Howard, Kentucky

Notable Deals: Reebok, Direct Auto Insurance

Howard has done more than just take advantage of the NCAA’s new NIL rules. Yes, she has partnered with Reebok and Direct Auto Insurance for sponsored social media posts, but she’s also taken her story to the Kentucky state government.

Last week, the All-American candidate represented student-athletes throughout the commonwealth as governor Andy Beshear signed a bill into law officially protecting the right of players to profit off of their NIL rights in Kentucky. She joined Wildcats men’s basketball coach John Calipari and Louisville women’s coach Jeff Walz in speaking on behalf of the bill that day and was the only student-athlete to speak.

Howard told reporters that she felt the legislation — and NIL in general — would pay off for student-athletes beyond the quick paycheck.

“I definitely think it will help with financial literacy,” Howard told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “… This is a great step because if you’re making a lot of money you don’t want to just spend it all. It can help you for life after college.”

Deja Kelly, North Carolina

Notable Deals: Barcode, Postmates, Dunkin’, Outback Steakhouse

Photo courtesy of Barcode

Before March, Kelly was already doing pretty well for herself in the NIL arena, complete with a Dunkin’ deal that gave her her own meal on the menu at Chapel Hill locations. Then, Kelly took it a step further. As Boardroom exclusively shared earlier this month, Kelly has become an investor in plant-based beverage company Barcode. She’s the first-ever woman athlete to come on board as a shareholder with the company, giving her the opportunity to grow along with the brand.

“Being a college athlete and aspiring businesswoman, generational wealth and wellness are both incredibly important to me,” she told Boardroom. “Having equity in a fast-growing startup that also offers the community a healthy alternative is a dream partnership for me.”

Kelly and the Tar Heels are a No. 5 seed in the Greensboro Region, meaning if they advance to the Sweet 16, she could be playing in front of a home crowd for the biggest games of her career.

Angel Reese, Maryland

Notable Deals: Outback Steakhouse, TIAA, Wingstop

Reese is Maryland’s leading scorer and carries the Terps into the tournament as perhaps the most dangerous 4-seed in the field. Off the court, she’s made a name for herself by embracing her passions. She told Boardroom that her favorite NIL deal was the campaign she did with TIAA to bring attention to the retirement income gap between men and women. She’s been a vocal part of the campaign, doing videos on social and interviews just about everywhere to talk about financial inequities in basketball and the workplace.

“Any NIL deal I do, I want to make sure it’s something I like. I don’t want to just look for the money,” she said. “I want to put things on my platform that’s important to me.”

In addition, Reese joined her brother, Julian — who plays for the Maryland men’s team — for a deal with Outback Steakhouse as part of its TeamMATES program. The deal makes their favorite Outback meals available online while raising awareness and money for the American Cancer Society.

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