Sabrina Ionescu builds her brand as an SOJC master's student

Three classroom photos of Sabrina Ionescu

In November, Nike announced it would sell Sabrina Ionescu’s jersey, making the Ducks point guard one of the few female college athletes to have her jersey mass-produced. It was a commercial testament to her athletic achievements.

But her thank-you tweet also showed she’s got more on her mind than sportswear: “Thank you @Nike, what an honor! Hoping this is the start of many more female athletes being represented! #GoDucks.”

The jerseys sold out in one day.

It’s no coincidence that the 22-year-old is already putting thought into how she comes across on social media. Ionescu is enrolled in the School of Journalism and Communication’s advertising and brand responsibility master’s program, a new one-year graduate program that teaches students how to create brands committed not just to earning profits but also to benefiting the social good.

While many of Ionescu’s peers in her 21-person cohort are learning how to create responsible brands for others, Ionescu is focused on building a responsible brand for herself.

“She’s already finding ways to put her purpose out there,” said professor Kim Sheehan, director of the program. “When I saw that tweet, I was just so proud of her, because she could have just said, ‘Thanks, Nike,’ and that would have been fine. But she got an important message out there, and I think that’s just the beginning of what we are going to see from her.”

Much of the nation assumed that Ionescu, the 2019 recipient of the John R. Wooden award for most outstanding female collegiate basketball player, would go pro following the 2018-19 season. Ionescu had even graduated from the University of Oregon in three years in case she decided to make that decision.

But she also applied for the advertising and brand responsibility program during the school year. And just days before Oregon’s appearance in the 2019 Final Four, she submitted her acceptance.

“When I was watching the Final Four and announcers were saying she’s going pro, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think she’s going to the draft, I think she’s coming to our program,’” Sheehan said.

She was correct.

“I saw her goal for her future was being a brand for her future,” Sheehan said. “It’s cool to see the role she wants to play in the world.”

Ionescu’s class, which started the program in the fall, includes students from across the United States with undergraduate majors ranging from economics to general social science. Sixty percent of the students completed their undergradate degrees at other schools, producing a group with diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Ionescu introduced herself to her fellow students as a basketball player, but many of her peers from outside the UO did not understand her status until they saw her likeness in advertisements created by the School of Journalism and Communication’s student-run Allen Hall Advertising agency.

She frequently attends office hours and exchanges emails with her professors. She said the extensive communication and longer class cycles have allowed her to build strong relationships with her graduate faculty. She’s also thrilled that her program offers independence and the opportunity to be creative.

“I wish more people knew about (the program), because of how great it is and how great the people are,” Ionescu said. “All the professors so far have been amazing, always wanting to see you succeed, letting you do what you want with your projects and course materials and letting you brainstorm on your own.”

When describing Ionescu’s efforts in the classroom, Sheehan described her student as “focused, creative, a pragmatic risk-taker and competitive,” similar to how she’s described on the court.

“When I think of those words, that’s how I also think of a responsible brand,” Sheehan said. “A responsible brand has to be laser-focused on what they are going to do to make the world better. … They have to be pragmatic risk-takers pushing the envelope.”

In the program, Ionescu has learned not only what makes a responsible brand but also how to create that brand for herself. Her most important takeaways include insight into how social media can make or break a brand.

“I knew that going in, but diving in on what makes a responsible brand and how social media has such a big impact and influence on people, especially in today’s society, (showed me) how big and powerful it is,” Ionescu said.

While she said she hasn’t changed the way she personally uses social media, Ionescu acknowledges that the program has helped her become more mindful of her actions.

“Everything that’s out there could be used against you, or could be used in a positive or a negative light,” Ionescu said.

At the moment, Ionescu is not sure how to describe her brand. It involves basketball, but it is also about the person she is outside the game. She doesn’t have a clear brand definition yet, but she’s confident the work she is doing in her master’s program will help her get there.

“I’m just trying to be a role model in the community, around the country to girls, and to anyone who needs a role model,” Ionescu said. “I think what I am learning now directly correlates to my life after basketball, even while I am playing right now. I’m learning more about my brand and how that can impact me and the team I’m going to be playing on. So I think everything goes hand in hand, what I want to do aside from basketball, whatever really speaks to me and how I can do that to the best of my ability.”

The WNBA draft is scheduled for April 17. Ionescu still plans to finish her program, leaving no unfinished business behind.

“I probably won’t be able to be in class for a lot of the things, but I am definitely going to find a way to get it done. And they are willing to help me with that, and that’s really nice,” she said. “I didn’t want to do something half-heartedly and then have to leave and not be able to finish it. I wanted to be able to finish it.”

—By Brooklynn Loiselle, School of Journalism and Communication