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Dawn Staley: The Dream Merchant of Women’s Basketball

Last Updated: April 7, 2024
Louis Vuitton Dawn has dominated hoops in professional and amateur ranks. What registers as wins as those worlds merge?

From the bleachers in Columbia to the streets of Philly, there are many things one could call Dawn Staley.

Coach, champ, and Hall of Famer instantly come to mind. If you ask NBA vet Cuttino Mobley, she’s the best point guard he ever played with. If you ask Forbes, they’ll tell you she’s a multi-millionaire. If you ask Andscape, they’ll tell you she’s a beacon of hope for more than just hoops.

But if you ask Dawn herself on-stage at the 2023 Nike World Basketball Festival, she’ll tell you something else.

“I’m a dream merchant,” Staley told Boardroom’s Eddie Gonzalez.

On brand, the tough and flashy floor general can thread the needle on everything that defines her, realizing how a half-century in hoops has taken her all over the world but, most importantly, into living rooms across the country.

In those settings, that self-appointed title holds even more weight. As the head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, she’s selling a dream appreciating momentum and monetary value each day.

Sitting across from parents in need of assurance all while operating at the apex of women’s basketball’s big boom, Staley has lived the dream from ABL to NIL. As she starts the 2023-24 season with higher hopes for her industry and less experience on her roster, Dawn’s court awareness is at an all-time high.

“Women’s basketball is bursting through the seams,” said Staley. “This is the best time to be playing our sport.”

In the era of NIL and an awakening in women’s sports, Dawn’s day job is more than just running practice and recruiting visits. Standing in the center of the sport set to tip into more money and more eyeballs, she balances building a powerhouse program while fighting for larger TV deals that will ensure earnings for all involved.

As the lines blur between baller and brand, so does the distinction between college coach and women’s advocate, floor raiser, and fundraiser. It’s a dichotomy that defines the dream merchant.

Luckily, Louis Vuitton Dawn has long excelled at being two things at once.


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Philly’s Most Wanted

Dawn Staley was raised in the Raymond Rosen housing projects in North Philadelphia.

Playing ball with the boys growing up, she traveled five hours down I-95 to the University of Virginia, where she’d lead the school to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and three Final Fours. When it was all said and done, the 5-6 floor general was named National Player of the Year twice.

photo by Damian Strohmeyer/Allsport/Getty Images

After earning her degree, Dawn darted overseas to play professionally in Italy, France, Brazil, and Spain. Running offenses abroad served as a master’s in leadership, eventually bringing her back to the States as the ABL and WNBA launched on the heels of her first Olympic gold medal.

For the latter part of the ’90s, Dawn ascended in the hoops space in America. From a Nike signature shoe to appearances in SLAM Magazine, she was playing on TV and even starring in commercials.

The hard work in hoops was paying off regarding relevance, but it wasn’t making her or her peers rich.

By the year 2000, the average WNBA salary was only $55,000.

That season, she’d start every game at point guard for the Charlotte Sting. Over the summer, she doubled down on her craft by winning her second Olympic gold in Australia.

Weeks later, she’d do something unprecedented for an active athlete her age: She’d start her college coaching career in Philly.

Earlier that year, a chance trip to Temple turned into a recruiting visit for the local legend. Despite having no interest in coaching and fair fear from her peers that taking on two jobs would be impossible, she accepted the challenge to turn around a program that hadn’t appeared in the NCAA Tournament since De La Soul debuted.

From 2001 to 2006, Dawn worked two jobs at once. She dominated her playing profession by being an annual mainstay of the WNBA All-Star Game while also winning another gold medal in Athens.

When she wasn’t killing it on the court, she hustled hard on the sideline. During those dual-employment days, the Temple Owls were winning the Atlantic-10 outright early and often while advancing in the NCAA Tournament because of it.

It was a sleepless stretch for the dream merchant, solidifying her sales pitch the last season she played pro.

In 2006, Staley’s final All-Star campaign coincided with the first year she’d produce one. After traveling to Tampa to recruit a three-sport stud in 2002, Dawn’s worlds collided four years later when Candice Dupree became Temple’s first female player to be drafted to the WNBA.

“When I was in college, she was still playing at the pro level,” Dupree told Boardroom. “So we’d go to New York, Connecticut, Charlotte, and DC to watch her play. I learned what it meant to be a pro just by watching her when I was in college.”

While coaching at Temple and playing in the WNBA, Staley sent both Kamesha Hairston and Dupree to the pro ranks. Each first-round pick found their footing under Staley in Philly, with the Tampa talent playing against her college coach just weeks after hearing her name called.

“To learn from her and compete against her my first year in the league?” said Dupree. “Not a lot of people can say they’ve done that, if anybody at all.”

Lacing up against her college coach after going No. 6 overall, Dupree entered a professional world she shared for one season with her mentor. By the time Dupree’s days in the league were done, she’d have seven All-Star selections, one WNBA Championship, and three Olympic gold medals to her name.

Like her coach, she’d find a fit on the sideline with the San Antonio Spurs. Unlike her coach, she’d finish her playing career earning $170,000 for a single season.

Just as the rate of pay has increased in the WNBA, Staley’s seen her value ascend since leaving Temple for the greener pastures of South Carolina.

Second Home

When Dawn Staley arrived in Columbia, SC, the Lady Gamecocks had never made a Final Four.

In its history, the school had produced an impressive five WNBA Draft picks, many of which Staley had played against

Since taking over in 2008, the Gamecocks have gone to five Final Fours and won two national championships. The 2023 WNBA season opened with eight of her players on rosters and finished with Dawn’s disciples claiming Finals MVP and Rookie of the Year honors.

“My passion has always been young people, just making sure they understand what it takes when they get to the league,” said Staley. “They are the ones that will take the league to higher heights.”

David E. Klutho / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

As alluded to, this is true. Staley has sent 14 players from SC to the WNBA and produced MVP talent with shoe deals and public profiles.

The top of the list includes A’ja Wilson, arguably the best player in women’s basketball and the blueprint for Staley’s system of success. Under her acclaimed coach, Wilson won several individual accolades and a national title. This tutelage and excellence led to her going No. 1 overall in the 2017 WNBA Draft, setting up the two-time league MVP for two titles.

As a pro, Wilson is estimated to have already earned $630,600 in WNBA action alone. She left Columbia with an array of records and a college degree. Each time she returns, she sees an 11-foot bronze statue saluting her greatness.

She also sees the coach that sculpted her success.

Lance King / Getty Images

“I really enjoy helping to mold players and getting them ready for life,” Staley said. “My passion’s at the collegiate level, and I hope it stays that way.”

From a financial standpoint, it likely will.

Wilson’s WNBA coach, two-time champion Becky Hammon, makes $1 million a year — a figure that tops all active players and coaches in the league.

In the college game, Staley stands to make $2.1 million in base salary this season. That number can only go up as added incentives to sweep SEC and NCAA awards total another $600,000.

In the third season of a historic seven-year deal valued at $22.4 million, Staley’s decision to coach college basketball during her pro playing career has set her and others up for bigger bucks than they could ever imagine.

Still, the dream merchant is not just selling student-athletes on what they could achieve at South Carolina. Rather, she’s looking to break open the floodgates on just how big and lucrative the women’s game can get.

“I like it,” said Staley. “It’s a challenge.”

A Dollar & a Dream

In 1992, Dawn Staley’s biggest challenge when it came to basketball was taking on Pat Summit’s Tennessee Volunteers in the prior season’s National Championship Game.

By the time Staley graduated from Virginia, she had a communications degree and the school scoring record to show for it. What she didn’t have was a paying job close to home. All those accolades left her unemployed in America, where basketball was concerned, taking the ACC assist leader to seasonal work abroad.

In 2023, Dawn returned to Europe. Taking her Gamecocks with her, the No. 6 team in America took over Paris through a 100-71 shellacking of No. 10 Notre Dame. While Staley’s squad won the game, both rosters benefitted from a team trip to France.

Additionally, Staley’s muscle played a part in having two African-American coaches tip off the college season not just abroad but broadcast for fans everywhere.

The revolution was televised as Rebecca Lobo, a teammate of Staley in the 1996 Olympics, and Andraya Carter, a player Staley coached against upon arriving at SC, called the game for ESPN.

The setting was special. The stage was familiar. This season alone, Staley’s squad will play on ESPN networks 10 times.

Not only will her young roster need to show and prove on the court, but fans will have to tune in to put pressure on industry execs to invest more money in the women’s game.

“We need more networks to compete for our talents,” said Staley. “Our television deal is up with ESPN. ESPN’s done a great job giving us a platform to grow and take us where we are now.”

Competition is where the game thrives and where Staley finds herself.

Last spring, Staley’s squad lost at the hot hands of Caitlin Clark. While the Final Four exit ended the Gamecock’s quest to repeat, it exploded opportunity for the women’s game as Iowa and Louisana State put on a Natty for the ages — and the record books.

The battle between Clark and Angel Reese captivated the country, drawing in 9.9 million viewers. For comparison, that outing outperformed Game 1 of the 2023 MLB World Series. For reference, Fox is currently under contract with the MLB for $5.1 billion for said broadcast rights.

C. Morgan Engel / NCAA Photos via Getty Images

As women’s college basketball begins its most anticipated season, perhaps ever, Staley sees more than just the ten players on the court but all of the broadcast partners capable of taking the game to a whole new level. Because the current contract with ESPN expires in 2024, the stakes are higher this season for all involved.

“We need other networks to show our worth,” said Staley. “ESPN knows our worth, but if there’s no competition? You’re not going to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at our sport if nobody’s competing for us in that space.”

It’s a fight she finds herself in the middle of despite being financially secure.

It’s a fight taking place in the middle of a season with hoop dreams of the team and individual variety all afloat.

Money, Power, Respect

Throughout her Hall of Famer career, Dawn Staley has ascended titles without shifting shapes.

Still standing only 5’6, she’s a giant in the game that competes at the highest level with coaches, countries, and institutions. The open market opportunities of NIL mixed with the big bucks shelled out to higher profile programs make Dawn’s dream merchant mantra a tougher sell than years past.

When recruiting the country’s top talent, Staley is extremely cognizant of the fact that picking a college to play basketball at is a financial decision that affects not only WNBA dreams but also the immediate earnings for families and the players themselves.

Because of funds, collectives, and NIL markets, a top-tier student-athlete often makes a high-level financial decision at only 18 years of age.

“I get the pull on the money,” said Staley. “If someone’s offering you $200,000, and that’s something you’ve never seen, and your family has to work ten years to get that in your bank account? I get it; I truly understand that part of it. Go for it; I am not mad at all. But I also don’t want to devalue what we bring to the table and the experience that you would have under me and our coaching staff.”

It’s a wild world for players and peers of the Hall of Fame coach. Because Staley’s seen the women’s game grow from playing in empty fieldhouses to selling out football stadiums, the promise of education and exposure still has to compete with promises of cold, hard cash.

“People are probably offering them a lot more money to lure them,” Staley said. “But the lessons that you get [here] are invaluable.”

Always in the weeds and on the grind, Staley is fighting hard to ensure that South Carolina has the same financial resources as the power programs she competes with.

“I look at the NIL space as a challenge,” said Staley. “We may not have the most, but I want to be competitive when it comes to recruiting young people. I don’t want that to be the factor if someone beats us out by $25,000 or $50,000. I don’t want that to be the determining factor.”

When the floodgates first opened on NIL, it was truly the wild, wild west where coaches could chase bags for their players. That all stopped a year ago when the NCAA changed the rules on the fly.

“The NCAA completely stopped us last October,” said Staley. “We had to shut everything down from me going out there and saying, ‘Hey, can you come do an all-team deal at South Carolina?'”

Because the NCAA no longer allows Staley and other coaches to find and facilitate NIL deals, the funding for players is fragmented and often of great variance from athlete to athlete and school to school.

Thus, the equity Dawn’s built over her illustrious legacy across brands does not bear the financial fruit it could for her players. This matters much on campus and in recruiting.

“As coaches, we have access to so many sponsors and relationships with companies,” Staley said.

This proves truer for Staley than most. Because of her resume on the sideline and on the court, she has the gravitas to appear in an Under Armour commercial with Aaliyah Boston and sit on the stage at Nike’s World Basketball Festival. Still, the Hall of Fame point guard has to play the background in earning for her athletes.

Because of this, she has to rely on the resources provided by the university that in SEC country usually go to the gridiron.

“There are things called collectives now, and we have to work through the collectives,” Staley said. “Collectives do a lot of work for football because they’re the main breadwinners, and I get that. But when we’ve had as much success as we’ve had at the University of South Carolina? We should be rolling in it, and we’re not.”

Once again, the 2x National Champion has to rely on her resume. One that adorns almost every accolade as a player and one that’s placed a handful of hopefuls in the WNBA.

“The things that we equip our players with will more than bring in the money that they deserve,” said Staley. “But they just gotta come to South Carolina first to get there.”

Next Up

When Dawn Staley took her tri-state swag to the SEC, few could’ve predicted record-setting coaching contracts and multiple National Championships.

Upending a women’s basketball scene long dominated by the likes of UConn and Tennessee, Staley serves as a disciplinarian and player’s coach all at once, not too different from that of Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa.

The biggest difference for Staley compared to the top tier of recruiters across all college sports is that she played professionally — and exceptionally — earning respect and reverence that few coaches across from her can match.

This type of esteem connects with parents and players alike.

C. Morgan Engel / NCAA Photos via Getty Images

“When you go into people’s living rooms and tell them that they’ll graduate?” said Staley. “They’re working to get to the next level. When you dangle that in front of them? They work a little bit harder.”

When looking for hard work, look no further than MiLaysia Fulwiley. When looking for the perfect place to take her talents, Staley’s program made perfect sense.

“I picked South Carolina because I wanted to be coached by somebody who’d been in my position before,” Fulwiley told Boardroom.

Already a viral sensation one game into her college career, Fulwiley exploded in Paris and across social media. Going coast to coast in France, the revered recruit went around the world and around her back, laying in a jellyroll lay-up that had everyone from Magic Johnson to Jamal Crawford singing her praises.

“It felt unbelievable when I heard that Kevin Durant shared my video,” Fulwiely said. “Seeing NBA stars and people who play basketball giving my move credit? It means a lot.”

While the freshman phenom owes her talent and hard work to the heralded highlight, getting seen on such a stage is a shoutout to Staley.

The program built by Dawn in Columbia, mixed with the pressure she’s put on the NCAA and ESPN, all funnel toward bigger platforms for the girls she coaches like Fulwiley.

In high school, the McDonald’s All-American was courted by coaches nationwide. She chose SC not just because of its proximity to home, but the character and resume only Staley could offer. Since arriving on campus, the flashy point guard has learned from a WNBA legend who played the same position.

Just the same, Fulwiley’s received coaching from Staley’s staff on thriving in the new open market of endorsements.

“She had multiple people come and talk to us about our NIL deals,” said Fulwiley. “We also have NIL companies in our program called Garnett Trust. She tells us to stay focused on basketball, and the NIL will play its part.”

So far, so good. Represented by Excel Sports Management, Fulwiley will continue to thrive off the court thanks to the work she’s putting in on the court.

Aurelien Meunier / Getty Images

Leading the No. 2 recruiting class in all of the women’s college basketball, Fulwiley will run the show for Staley, which is green where age is concerned.

“We’ve got a little different team,” said Staley. “We’re super talented but not much on-court experience.”

All the while, Staley will continue to fight the good fight for women’s basketball. Just like her early days at Temple while playing point for the Charlotte Sting, the dream merchant is sacrificing sleep so that these girls can make more money and more noise than anyone ever imagined.

“Every season brings on a different challenge no matter who you have,” said Staley.

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Ian Stonebrook

Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.