The question was put to Sonny Vaccaro, the longtime shoe company executive who now works for adidas America. You've got two basketball players to package and sell to sports advertisers. One is George Lynch, the only member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's champion North Carolina to be turning professional this year. The other is Sheryl Swoopes, the best women's basketball player in the nation from NCAA champion Texas Tech. She too is turning pro.
Who is more marketable?
"Definitely, Sheryl Swoopes," said Vaccaro. "Her name is meaningful in basketball circles. Swoopes as in hoops: it flows off the tongue. She is a big star. George Lynch, on the other hand, was part of a very good team. I don't think there are any endorsement possibilities for him unless he blossoms into a star in the NBA."
But who will make more money playing professional basketball? Definitely, Lynch.
Lynch, who is projected to be selected in the middle of the first round of the upcoming National Basketball Association draft, likely will make a salary of between $1 million and $1.3 million next season, according to agents and others in the sports marketing world. His endorsements will be negligible his rookie season, perhaps nothing more than free shoes and clothes.
Swoopes, who will go to Europe to play professionally because there is no U.S. women's professional basketball league, will earn about $200,000 in her first year. At least half of that will be in endorsements, the experts say, even though she will spend nine months of the year overseas, well out of range of U.S. television cameras.
Over two days in early April, Swoopes and Lynch shared the experience of helping their teams win national championships. Swoopes, the 1992-93 collegiate player of the year, scored 47 points -- the most ever by a man or woman in a national championship game -- in Texas Tech's 84-82 victory over Ohio State. The following evening, Lynch scored 12 points in North Carolina's 77-71 win over Michigan. He was an integral part of the Tar Heels' success, but he wasn't the star.
Almost immediately, their attention turned to pro basketball. Their coaches started fielding telephone calls from agents while their own home phones rang incessantly. In Swoopes's case, the calls were of a sexist nature, some coming at 2 a.m., making threats and harassing her because of her new-found fame.
This was the beginning of the realization for Swoopes that being a female basketball star is something quite different from being a male basketball star.
"People say, if you were a male, you would have gone in the lottery," Swoopes said. "It's really frustrating to think about it, to think that men have so many more opportunities than women. Going overseas and staying in the United States, those are just two totally different things. The NBA, you watch it on television all the time, but you don't hear anything about women playing overseas, unless you know their college coaches and ask them how so and so is doing. It's sad and frustrating."
Said Lynch: "I definitely feel sorry for her. Guys coming up know there's an NBA career after college. The women know they have to go overseas. For me, it would be a disappointment if there was no NBA and I had to sign with a team in Europe. Being an American, you want to stay here and play in front of your family and friends. She can't do that."
Because previous attempts to start a women's professional basketball league in the United States have failed, she would have to play in Europe, most likely either Spain or Italy. There would be no draft to place her in a city; she would have to shop herself to the highest bidder.
Thus, she would need a good agent, one with contacts in international women's basketball. Dozens called, more than 50 in all, but few were qualified. The initial screening was done by Texas Tech Coach Marsha Sharp.
"After you talk to them for a period of time, and they can't even say what countries women are playing in, you know," Sharp said. "They might do a great job for men, but not for women."
Swoopes needed not only an agent, but a manager as well. For that job, she chose Nancy Lieberman-Cline, the women's basketball legend who once managed Martina Navratilova's career. She and Lieberman-Cline recently selected Bruce Levy Associates in New York, which places an average of 60 American women each year in foreign pro basketball leagues.
For Lynch, who has not yet selected an agent, the process is much easier. Coach Dean Smith is talking with the agents who call; few, if any, are unknown to him. They don't need to have foreign contacts because Lynch, barring negotiation problems with his NBA team, is going to play in the United States. And the agents are so sure of how to sell a male player that they don't need the help of a manager like Lieberman-Cline.
"It's different for a woman, but that's okay," said Lieberman-Cline, president of ProMotion Events Inc. of Omaha, a sports marketing firm. "We're breaking new ground with Sheryl. Women's sports hasn't had a team sport athlete with the star-appeal that Sheryl has. She's young and pretty and articulate, and companies like that. She's the female Jordan."
What awaits Swoopes? Her starting salary will be about 1/10th of what Lynch will make if he indeed is selected in the middle of the first round of the NBA draft as expected. Some experts say she'll make $100,000, some say it might be a little less the first year, others say it will be a bit more.
Salaries for U.S. women basketball players overseas range from $25,000 to $250,000 a year, Lieberman-Cline said. She said she made $100,000 in 1980 playing for the Dallas Diamonds of the U.S. Professional Basketball League; $65,000 in 1984 playing for Dallas of the Women's American Basketball Association; and $50,000 in 1988 playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. She never played professionally in Europe.
Women's teams in Europe are sponsored by local companies and offer some lucrative perks to their foreign players: a furnished apartment, a car or free transportation during the season, roundtrip airline tickets to and from the United States and full insurance coverage.
"A few Americans will be earning over $100,000 this year," said Jill Jeffrey, vice president of Bruce Levy Associates and a professional player in the early 1980s. "I'm not sure what Sheryl will make, but I can say she will be the highest-paid player coming out of college."
Jeffrey said that Swoopes's American appeal doesn't mean much overseas. Furthermore, the market is flooded because the women's leagues in Japan are excluding U.S. players this coming season, forcing 32 Americans who have been playing in Japan to find a job with a team in Europe or South America. The Japanese are kicking Americans out, Jeffrey said, because of economic reasons and because they believe U.S. players are taking the top spots from Japanese players, even though only two foreign players are allowed on each Japanese team and only one can play at a time.
"It's an unusual year because Japan is closed," Jeffrey said. "That makes it tougher on players like Sheryl because clubs overseas like to hire experience. So she's competing with players who already have four or five years experience overseas, who've gotten over the homesickness and the language barrier. It's a lot different than the male player. The only change for him is he's moving to a different city in the United States."
For Swoopes, endorsements are the other part of the package. She has agreed in principle to a four-year deal with Nike for advertising and endorsements.
Promoters feel that if Swoopes had been a junior at the Final Four, she would be much more marketable next year than she is this year, provided that her upcoming senior season was just as good. It hurts her to disappear competitively from the United States after the performance of a lifetime. The next time she can be seen by a U.S. audience is in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, provided she makes the U.S. team. That's three long years away.
On the other hand, promoters are thrilled about the marketing prospects if she plays well in Europe for three seasons and then comes home and becomes a standout on the U.S. Olympic team.
Estimates vary on what Swoopes will make in endorsements in her first year, but it's expected to be around $100,000, including her Nike deal. That's likely to be much more than Lynch makes in endorsements his first year.
"The top five picks usually get the big shoe contracts," Lynch said. "If I'm in the middle of the first round, I won't get much. That's just the reality of my situation. The shoe companies want high-marketability guys."
For both, it's a humbling prospect to be about to sign a lucrative contract to play the sport they love.
Said Swoopes: "I never in my wildest dreams thought I would have as many opportunities as I do to go out and do something with my life and actually make money so I can help the people who helped me. Coming from a town of 10,000, it's really unbelievable. It's like I'm in a big old dream."
Said Lynch: "It's gone through my mind many times how I'd like to help provide for my family. I won't be thinking of $1 million until I sign the contract. But now that I've got my college degree, I think about the guy sitting next to me in class, who might be starting out at $20,000 or $30,000. That keeps it in perspective for me. I know I've got a big chance."
"You look at a guy like George Lynch, and he's going to make big money on his contract," said Lieberman-Cline. "But Sheryl isn't going to do too badly either. It's apples and oranges, but apples aren't so bad."