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WNBA players: NIL can help make our league more popular

DiDi Richards greets Baylor fans before the 2019 national championship game. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

DiDi Richards didn’t think about developing her personal brand. It just sort of happened.

While playing basketball for four years at Baylor, Richards sported two curly pigtails on the top of her head, which she refers to as “puffs.” During Baylor’s run to the NCAA championship in 2019, Richards started seeing her hair everywhere. It got to the point where she joked that Baylor fans liked her hair more than she did.

“I would see shirts with emblems of my hair, or people would have hats with fake puffs on top,” she said. “So I think that like accidentally became my brand. It wasn’t something I tried to do, it just happened.”

Richards graduated right before NIL opportunities opened up for college players, but now that branding is such a priority for those at the NCAA level, it has a domino effect in the WNBA as well.

The formula seems simple: The more popular players become in college, the more fans will translate to the WNBA.

Recently, many professional players have made it a priority to return to their alma maters, participating in TV broadcasts and events and mingling with fans. Not only does this give them the opportunity to relive memories with their former programs, it also helps to bridge the gap between WNBA and college fans.

“All the people that are at that school, it just shows them where the game is going on the women’s side,” said Kelsey Mitchell, who recently returned to Ohio State for two games. “It’s crazy how, when you go back, how many people you remember, and when you have conversations with them you are able to reconnect.”

Mitchell says she was able to converse with Buckeyes fans who have now become Indiana Fever fans since the guard went second overall to the team in the 2018 WNBA Draft.

On Sunday, when No. 5 UConn plays No. 1 South Carolina, Napheesa Collier will be able to do the same when she returns to Connecticut. Collier is also looking forward to bringing her daughter, Mila, around the program for the first time since she was born in May.

A lot has changed for the new mother since she left UConn, but Huskies fans have not.

Collier says she sees UConn fans at her WNBA games with the Lynx, and that the people who watched her in college have stayed loyal to her and other Huskies in the pros.

“I don’t think that is the case for everyone though,” she said. “You see a lot of diehard fans and alumni and things like that at college games, and then you see a drop-off when it comes to the league.”

UConn is a historic program with a passionate fanbase, and Collier says she feels lucky to have that kind of support behind her, no matter where she is playing. But even the fanbases of other well-known programs don’t always translate from one league to another.

When Richards was at Baylor for the Bears’ rivalry game against Texas on Jan. 22, many of the fans didn’t even know she was in the WNBA, and that shocked her.

“They saw me and they were like, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing now? Are you enjoying life after basketball?’ Some people honestly don’t know that there is a next step and that I’ve taken that next step,” she said.

Richards thinks much of that disconnect stems from the older generation of fans. The younger ones follow her and other players on social media, so they see her posting about the WNBA. For those that don’t, there need to be other avenues for increasing visibility, such as visits to campus and the NIL market.

Current college stars like Aliyah Boston, Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers are already growing their personal brands and becoming household names, and they will only bring more attention to the WNBA when they turn pro.

Individual marketing endeavors also open doors for other players to negotiate deals.

“I think players like Paige are setting the bar really high,” Collier said of her fellow Husky. “It helps because you can use her as a comparison. Like, ‘OK, we know you have the money because you paid her this,’ or, ‘We know you have the resources because we’ve seen it already.’ So it gives us a leveraging point.”

The NIL era changed things drastically for college athletes, and though they missed out on it themselves, Richards, Collier and Mitchell are happy to see the college game evolving. Not only does it allow student-athletes to make money, but it also educates them on the business side of basketball, something they will need in the WNBA.

“That was something that was new once we left,” Collier said. “Then you are bombarded with trying to get sponsorships and doing activations. You kind of got hit with it all at once. Now they are used to it in college.”

But the increased opportunities can also lead to more stress for student-athletes.

“Coaches have told me that sometimes it can pull focus because players are sometimes more worried about themselves,” Collier said. “You have to have a brand and you have to be marketable for sponsorships to want to pick you up. If you’re not scoring, it becomes harder.”

Overall, Collier is thrilled about the addition of NIL opportunities, as are other WNBA players who missed out on the market.

“These kids work hard,” Mitchell said. “They tap into their craft day in and day out. They are sharpening their iron. I think they should enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

And if those fruits transfer to the WNBA, all the better.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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