Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver Adjust to WNBA Life

Kristi Toliver signed with Nike and is trying to take advantage of other endorsement opportunities.
Kristi Toliver signed with Nike and is trying to take advantage of other endorsement opportunities. (By Allen Einstein -- Nbae Via Getty Images)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009

When Kristi Toliver made her WNBA debut earlier this month, she saw a familiar sight in the crowd at Target Center in Minneapolis: Young kids dressed in Maryland T-shirts and No. 20 jerseys shouted her name and waved at her, even though she now wears No. 7 for the Chicago Sky.

A similar scene greeted Marissa Coleman, Toliver's former teammate on the Terrapins, during an autograph session at an Italian restaurant in Rockville in late May. As Coleman signed glossy photos of herself holding a Washington Mystics uniform, a crowd of kids wearing Terps shirts and Crocs surrounded her.

Coleman and Toliver, whose WNBA teams face each other tonight at Verizon Center, became stars together at Maryland, where they led the Terrapins to the 2006 NCAA title. They left such an indelible imprint in College Park that CIA Director Leon Panetta even mentioned them -- and no other athletes -- in the university's commencement address on May 21 at Comcast Center, referring to them as "two of the most mobile and accurate weapons in existence."

Less than a month into the season, the two rookies have had mixed results on the court. Coleman, the second-leading scorer in Maryland history, averaged 12.7 points in her first three games, but is sidelined with a high-ankle sprain. Toliver, the ACC player of the year, is averaging 3.5 points in 9.5 minutes per game. Both players are reserves, after making a combined 261 starts at Maryland.

But on-the-court adjustments are just one part of Coleman's and Toliver's transition. The trappings usually associated with the jump from college to the pros -- more exposure, more fans -- don't always come for women's basketball players, particularly those who played for high-profile college programs.

As a Maryland senior, Coleman played in eight games that were broadcast on one of the ESPN networks. With the Mystics, only one game -- July 23 against Toliver's Sky -- is set for national television. (Tonight's game is not being televised even locally.) During Toliver's final three seasons, Maryland's home crowds averaged 8,790 inside 17,950-seat Comcast Center; the Sky is currently drawing an average of 3,589 fans and plays in an arena with a capacity of 6,500.

"It's tough, especially coming from a college like Maryland where you have great fan support and are in a great area," Toliver said. "It's very different. It's just another adjustment."

As two of the top four picks in the draft, Coleman (second overall) and Toliver (third) earn base salaries of $44,945 in the WNBA this season. They live in furnished apartments that are provided by their teams; Coleman still drives the same green Ford Explorer that she had in high school.

"Unfortunately, [the WNBA] is a part-time job. They're not making a lot of money," said Boris Lelchitski, who represents more than 20 WNBA players, including Toliver and Coleman, through his Gaithersburg-based agency, Sports International Group. "In this business of women's basketball, the moneymaker is playing overseas. That's their life: nonstop basketball, all over the world."

Both players should earn six-figure salaries in Europe, according to Lelchitski. Coleman, a versatile 6-foot-1 forward, is expected to sign a contract today with Famila of Schio, Italy, which won the EuroCup in 2008. Lelchitski is still sorting through offers for Toliver, a sharp-shooting 5-foot-7 point guard.

Lelchitski also is working on securing endorsement opportunities for Coleman and Toliver; now is the best time to do that, because their college success and popularity are fresh in people's minds. As Toliver put it, "Before I fall off the face of the earth, I want to make sure I take advantage of these opportunities."

Both players signed shoe deals for several thousand dollars apiece; Coleman went with Under Armour, and Toliver picked Nike over Protege, a low-priced brand created by New York Knicks forward Al Harrington and sold at Kmart.

"Protege was a great opportunity; I think I would've had my own shoe, and maybe my own clothing line," Toliver said. "I would've been kind of the spokesperson for the brand, and I would've had a lot of marketing opportunities. That was really tough to pass up. But I've always been a Nike kid. . . . I still think that I'll have opportunities to do a lot of things with Nike, and beyond basketball, when I'm done playing, I'll just have so many connections."

The Mystics -- who drafted another Maryland player, Crystal Langhorne, last year -- have tried to take advantage of Coleman's popularity. Shortly after the two-time All-Met from St. John's was drafted, the team offered a "Coleman's Corner" ticket package, which included a lower-level season ticket, a voucher for a Maryland women's game, and admission to a meet-and-greet with Coleman and Toliver, for $425. She has made several appearances for the team, including three in one day in late May: She was on Fox 5's morning show, stopped by a sponsor's luncheon hosted by Mystics majority owner Ted Leonsis and team president Sheila Johnson, and spent the evening signing autographs at a restaurant in Rockville.

"It's just part of the job now," Coleman said. "I don't mind it. It's fun. It's good to get out there and make your face known, and get people excited about what's going on."

"Obviously we recognize her as a star in the making for us, and every opportunity we have to get her out front and center, we do so," Mystics chief operating officer Greg Bibb said. "To her credit, she has been more than willing to help us in any way that she can. It's sort of not an introduction for her; it's a continuation. We go places and there are a hundred people that know her better than we do, because they spent the past four years with her at Maryland."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company