Gatorade is signing its first-ever college athlete to an endorsement deal as the prolific sponsor capitalizes on a recent NCAA rule change to increase its influence in women's sports.
Paige Bueckers, the 20-year-old basketball phenom at the University of Connecticut, agreed to a multiyear deal with the PepsiCo Inc.-owned sports drink to join its athlete roster. As part of the arrangement, she'll promote the brand in television commercials, social posts, product collaborations and events, with a focus on boosting women's basketball. The parties declined to disclose financial terms of the agreement.
Bueckers is one of the top student-athletes in all of college sports, earning player of the year honors in 2021 with projections of becoming a top pick in the Women's National Basketball Association draft when she becomes eligible in 2023. She joins a Gatorade roster with several of the world's top active women's athletes, including tennis icon Serena Williams, two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and Olympic gold-medal hurdler Sydney McLaughlin.
"I know this is just the beginning of our partnership and can't wait to get to work with Gatorade to drive impact in the community and on the women's game," Bueckers said in an email.
On the court, Bueckers follows a long line of superstars from UConn's storied program that's won 11 national championships, following all-time greats like Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart. Her predecessors, however, weren't permitted to land similar paydays while still in school, due to longtime restrictions imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Student-athlete endorsement deals are beginning to pile up after the NCAA changed its policies in July to allow college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. They range from small arrangements with local businesses to long-term contracts to promote products from fast food to deodorant.
Bueckers has emerged as the big-money prototype, now with two major deals in place. After the rule change, she signed with sports agency Wasserman Media Group and in November she scored a deal to be a spokesperson for sneaker resale site StockX. She also locked down her nickname, "Paige Buckets," by filing a request with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect the mark for athletic apparel products including shirts, shoes and jackets.
Her teammates have also garnered interest. Senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa partnered with Fabletics and freshman Azzi Fudd signed with Chipotle and BioSteel, while both Christyn Williams and Caroline Ducharme recently signed with agency Excel Sports Management to manage their NIL deals. They must all wear Nike in games and at official events as part of UConn's existing agreement with the athletic-wear company.
College athletes offer brands like Gatorade a new avenue to reach young consumers. It also allows them to stake a claim earlier in the search for future stars that may one day achieve global fame.
Gatorade has been embedded in college sports for decades — the drink itself was developed at the University of Florida in the 1960s — and has relationships with more than 60 top college programs and conferences. Executives weren't surprised by the NCAA's move, which followed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that stripped the association of some of its restrictive power. Jeff Kearney, global head of sports marketing for Gatorade, said that while the brand doesn't plan to have a college-specific strategy, the recent change significantly increases the pool of potential endorsers he can work with.
As opportunities have opened up, brands are targeting younger talent than ever. Puma SE recently signed top basketball prospect Mikey Williams, a 17-year-old in high school, to a multiyear deal to push the shoe brand in its ads.
Gatorade signed baseball star Bryce Harper, now a two-time National League MVP, and NBA all-star Zion Williamson when they were still teenagers, though both had already left school to go pro. But the further these athletes are from professional stardom, the bigger the risk.
"We try to do as much homework as we possibly can, and there are no guarantees," said Kearney, who expects to add more college players in the future. "We talk to coaches and athletic trainers and teammates and opponents and officials and parents to tell us a little more about this person and what makes them tick."