University of Florida gymnast Alyssa Baumann’s verified Instagram account has more than 65,800 followers. If she were to monetize it, the eight-time All-American could see more than $52,600 roll in over her final year of eligibility and the first of the NIL era, according to a study by Athletic Director U.
As of July 1, student-athletes around the country could start to make money off their name, image and likeness. They are allowed to endorse products, make paid appearances, sign autographs and host camps. This is a previously untapped market. Only 2 percent of collegiate athletes go on to play professionally. With NIL, the remaining 98 percent are allowed to profit off themselves, too.
How will this change be felt on the women’s side of college athletics, where there always have been fewer opportunities to profit?
Women’s participation in sports has increased by nearly 900 percent since Title IX passed in 1972, while the average episode of SportsCenter only allocates 2 percent of its coverage to women’s sports. Even still, events like the 2021 Women’s College World Series post viewership numbers that rival their baseball counterparts. Now with NIL, an athlete’s worth is determined by engagement with their audience, not the amount of screen time ESPN decides to give them. Some of the most-followed collegiate athletes on social media are women. And in a period where equity in sports is a national talking point, the incentive to invest in female athletes couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We’ve seen the rise of women’s sports become really powerful within the last few years,” said Sydney Large, a social media manager for the third-party NIL firm Opendorse. “They’re dominating social (media). Female athletes are dominating social (media).”
According to a Sport Management Review study, female athletes post more on social media than male athletes on average. And while male athletes tend to have more followers, the median male and female athletes have similar engagement figures (likes, shares, comments). This creates the potential for a more “level playing field” than the one that exists with TV and other traditional media coverage.
It’s all about establishing your brand by posting about your passions and posting often. Athletes must build an audience and interact with that audience to the point where it trusts them enough to take action (such as buying products, which generates revenue — the whole reason brands align themselves with celebrities). And these things take time, said Michelle Harrolle, director of USF’s sports and entertainment management program.
“You think about these professional athletes who are developing content and posting it out there,” said Harrolle, who also swam at the University of Florida. “It’s almost a full-time job that somebody else is doing for them.”
NIL frees athletes to talk more about their experiences through social media. While athletic departments used to have some say over what students could and could not post on Twitter or other platforms, schools now have to be wary of hindering athletes’ ability to market themselves and fulfill their responsibilities to sponsors. This more personal and authentic brand athletes are able to set up could endear consumers — particularly Generation Z, members of which have been marketed to online their entire lives — even more to their messaging.
“Social media provides an outlet for every single student athlete to have a postgame podium,” said Large, who rowed at the University of Minnesota. “So, I think as we see more and more of these student-athletes talking about their experience, talking about maybe what it’s like to be a female athlete, fans are going to buy into that. And, ideally, it will start to build more and more opportunities.”
LSU gymnast Olvia Dunne (4 million TikTok followers, 1.1 million on Instagram). Fresno State basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder (3.3 million TikTok followers, 516K combined on Instagram), who already have three deals with Boost Mobile, Six Star Pro Nutrition and Gopuff. Texas long jumper Tara Davis (165.2K TikTok followers, 204K on Instagram). These four women exude personality and authenticity. They aren’t afraid to do silly poses or post videos while not wearing makeup. They also aren’t afraid to share clips of themselves competing.
Dunne regularly posts videos of herself doing flips somewhere on LSU’s campus or at the beach (which she calls “beach-nastics”). Haley and Hannah wooed the world with posts of them dribbling in unison.
“Olivia Dunne is the most followed student-athlete on social media between Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, I believe. Crazy following,” Large said. “And she is a female gymnast. I think that right off the bat shows that, hey, anybody can profit off the NIL era.”
And of the Cavinder twins: “They will be out-earning quite a few of these D1 football and basketball players,” Large added.
With that in mind, it’s tempting to look ahead and ask what kind of waves NIL could make in the realm of women’s athletics. If companies start making fruitful deals with female collegiate athletes, could that provide a financial incentive to invest in professional women’s sports? Might we see expansion in pre-existing leagues like the WNBA? Or the creation of a professional field hockey league? Could this shrink the gender pay gap?
The answer: Time will tell.
The more exposure women get, as seen over the last year and a half with the WNBA during the pandemic, the better for women’s sports, Harrolle said.
“You’ll see the gap get a little bit closer, but it’s only a marginal gain,” she said. “It’s going to take many, many years, many, many decades to make those huge gains.”