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If Coke Zero Sugar hadn’t given Tamika Catchings a role as one of its faces of March Madness, she would’ve stolen it.
In one of two ads the brand is airing just ahead of college basketball’s biggest tournaments—the other features Magic Johnson—actors Dave Burd (star of FX’s Dave, but best known as rapper Lil Dicky) and Travis Bennett (Burd’s Dave co-star with spots in “Confess, Fletch” and Netflix’s “You People”) get caught in an argument over which basketball player is the best stealer of all time.
Is it current Golden State Warriors star Jordan Poole, who’s averaged nearly a steal a game over the last two years and racked up 168 over a four-year career?
Is it Muggsy Bogues, who ended up with nearly 1,400 steals after averaging 1.5 steals per game over a 15-year career?
Not even close.
What about Hall of Famer Dawn Staley, now the head coach of reigning NCAA champion University of South Carolina, who averaged 1.3 steals per game in the WNBA?
Catchings averaged 2.35 steals per game throughout her WNBA career. That trails only NBA players Alvin Robertson (2.71 steals per game), Michael Ray Richardson (2.63) and NBA/ABA player Fatty Taylor (2.4). As those unafraid to correct the internet already know, the only player close to Catchings’ average who also shares a place with her in the Basketball Hall of Fame is Michael Jordan, who tied her mark at 2.35 per game.
“Think about any sport: You always have the conversation around who’s the best player, who’s the G.O.A.T., who’s legendary, who’s not, who needs to be in the conversation, who doesn’t,” Catchings said. “When I saw the ad, when I saw the shoot and saw the flow of it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool.’”
With the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament bearing March Madness branding for the second year in a row and WNBA franchises like New York Liberty and reigning champion Las Vegas Aces spending big on players and amenities, brands like Coca-Cola are competing for the best women’s basketball has to offer. In Catchings, Coke Zero Sugar found a voice that spans the sport’s eras and links its pioneers to the modern game.
Demystifying the madness
Catchings played for Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt’s University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers from 1997 to 2001, winning a national title during a 39-0 1997-98 season. She was an All-American for all four years at Tennessee and earned Naismith College Player of the Year honors in 2000.
But last year, the NCAA granted women’s basketball the right to use March Madness branding for the first time in its history. It did so just as players got their first taste of name, image and likeness rights with brands and as Staley led her Gamecocks to a national title in front of nearly 5 million viewers on ESPN.
Where women’s March Madness Selection Sunday pulled in nearly 1.2 million viewers last year, a regular-season game between Staley’s Gamecocks and LSU averaged 1.5 million. Catchings’ ad first airs on March 4 during a men’s game between North Carolina and Duke—where her nephew Kale Catchings plays—and she sees it as another chance to expand the reach of the women’s game during March Madness.
“For me, it’s an opportunity because I’ve been a part of the game and hopefully, as the game continues to evolve, I will still be able to help them in whatever capacity I can,” Catchings said. “I love being in a challenging conversation—people can say ‘of course Tamika’s not the best player” or ‘Coke’s not this or not that’— but at the end of the day, having the Coke Zero Sugar name in your mouth means that you’re talking about this.”
The next best
It’s a bit easier to tune out naysayers when you’ve won four gold medals with Team USA and played 15 seasons for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever and still rank third all time among the league’s scorers. Catchings has been named defensive player of the year five times, won the league’s most valuable player award in 2011 and the WNBA Finals MVP during the Fever’s title run in 2012. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020 and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021.
But only recently have the game and the brands following it grown to meet the talent of Catchings and those who came after her. WNBA teams are pouring money into chartered flights and big-ticket free agents that just wasn’t available during Catchings’ career. She considers it “part of being a trail blazer”—comparing it to how her father Harvey Catchings was paid while playing in the NBA during the ‘70s and ‘80s versus how the league’s players are compensated today. But as the pandemic waned and both women’s college basketball and the WNBA returned, Catchings said she’s seen an evolution that’s made companies like Coca-Cola want to come aboard. She’s not talking about Coke Zero Sugar for no reason.
“Coca-Cola is engaged and involved now because they see a prime opportunity: We need women’s sports,” Catchings said. “We’re putting a spotlight on what women are doing and how the game is evolving, the numbers speak for themselves and this is a pivotal moment to do that.”
“Maybe one day, as we’re talking about the best-ever right now, maybe one day 15, 20, 30 years down the road, some of the new players will be in those conversations, and that’s how you’ll continue to see it evolve and see those opportunities.”