Paige Bueckers is one of the most recognizable athletes in college sports. She has a massive social media following and a large platform as a star basketball player with UConn's storied program.
She could secure as many endorsement deals as she desires in the NIL era (name, image and likeness). Bueckers chooses to be more deliberate when exploring NIL deals, and she has one stipulation she calls "non-negotiable."
Her partnership with any company must include a charity or community engagement opportunity so that she can give back.
"I really have huge goals with all this," she said, "and the people I work with do as well."
The former Hopkins star fulfilled that promise Thursday in a place that she loves dearly. Bueckers cut the ribbon on a free grocery store located inside Hopkins West Junior High School in partnership with three entities: Chegg, Goodr and ICA Food Shelf.
Bueckers signed an NIL deal with Chegg, an education technology company, last spring as brand ambassador with the purpose of fighting food insecurity for students. Before she signed the contract, Bueckers met with Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig and said her primary objectives were to help her community and serve as a role model.
Bueckers attended Hopkins West, which already offered a food shelf but now has the backing of Chegg. The grocery store will feed 50 families a week free of charge. This is Chegg's first sustainable food store located inside a school in the country, according to the CEO.
"This is Paige's idea," Rosensweig said. "She's a once-in-a-generation person who happens to be an extraordinary athlete."
Fans of college sports often lament the influence NIL opportunities have on recruiting and in enticing athletes to change schools. NIL has generated plenty of negative headlines since its arrival. The way Bueckers handles her sponsorships shows that this wild-west narrative overlooks the positive benefits. Bueckers also feels pride in knowing women college athletes are some of the most sought-after marketing draws in this new realm.
As women's college basketball soars in popularity and TV viewership, companies increasingly are turning to individual stars to endorse their products.
Bueckers manages a half-dozen multi-year NIL deals, including Gatorade, which signed her as the first college athlete, male or female, to endorse their global brand. She is selective in picking opportunities.
"I'm thinking more long-term," she said. "I want people to have big plans."
Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese expanded their NIL portfolios this season after lifting the Final Four to record TV ratings and a national conversation. Female athletes in all sports — gymnastics, softball, volleyball, track, and more — are finding NIL opportunities aplenty. The highest earners are now millionaires, not long removed from being prohibited by the NCAA from earning an income.
"Especially with women's basketball," Bueckers said, "the amount of growth that has happened over the past year, people are starting to give more recognition and more respect to the women's game. We're just so fun to watch. We're competitive and we play the game the right way."
Bueckers hired a business manager as she entered this new space. The income is nice, of course — her deals reportedly add up to more than $800,000 so far — but she said juggling school, basketball and NIL can be tricky. She flew from Connecticut early Thursday morning for her event, then took a late-night flight home after a long day of activities.
She wasn't complaining, though. Bueckers missed the entire basketball season after suffering a torn ACL. Her recovery is at the stage where she's now able to do some basketball work on the court again.
"I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said.
She was standing outside the grocery store after the ribbon-cutting ceremony in a quiet moment before leaving to catch a flight.
Bueckers chuckled when I mentioned that the first time I interviewed her was as an eighth-grader playing varsity basketball at Hopkins in 2016. She was still enrolled at Hopkins West Junior at that time.
Now here she was, back in those same school hallways, using her fame to do something wonderful for her community.
"To be able to see this come true," she said, "is a dream."