In the world of collegiate athletics, many of its sports are viewed as pipelines to professional athletics. Among the roughly 24 sports sanctioned by the NCAA, a little under half offer a professional opportunity following graduation.
For Livvy Dunne, the social media queen of college sports, her luck will ultimately run out upon her expected graduation from Louisiana State University in 2024.
“With gymnastics, you peak when you’re about 15 years old,” Dunne told PEOPLE in an interview. “After college, there’s nothing really for gymnasts.”
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Starting her training at the age of 3, Dunne became the youngest USA international Elite gymnast at just 11-years-old. In 2017, she won gold with the USA Junior National team. Over the next few years, Dunne’s social media following rose, eclipsing the 100,000 follower mark on Instagram at 16. Two years later, amidst the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, her TikTok viewership soared in the millions.
Signing her letter of intent to LSU in 2019, Dunne’s stardom was growing, but the expectation to turn a hobby into a seven-figure salary was completely outlandish at the time. But in 2021, thanks to the NCAA’s policy change on name, image and likeness, what seemed crazy became reality.
“That’s the moment that changed my life,” Dunne said.
All of a sudden, the brand deals came flowing in.
First, an exclusive apparel deal with Vuori, who she’s stayed loyal to until this day, American Eagle, Forever 21, Grubhub, and most recently, a partnership with Leaf Trading Cards and Body Armor. Dunne’s unique social media following has led her to a place no college athlete has gone before, and a place very few may ever be able to replicate — with 7.2 million followers on TikTok, plus an additional 3.7 on Instagram.
While she is grateful for the opportunity to make as much as she does, there’s still room to grow. As both a female, and an athlete in a non-revenue generating sport with no professional pipeline, those similar to Dunne aren’t looked upon in the same light as those in much more notable sports.
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According to Opendorse’s NIL Insights through February 2023, football players make up over half the overall NIL compensation at 55.1%, crushing every other NCAA sport combined. Men’s basketball, who is a faraway second at just under 21%, also outpaces all other NCAA sports, with the remaining top ten sports generating 18.9% of overall revenue.
While Dunne and fellow gymnast Sunisa Lee are two of the wealthiest college athletes with their bevy of brand deals, others are not as lucky, nor hold the same profile as them — whether it be Dunne’s social media following or Lee’s resume as a three-time medalist for Team USA in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
There are over 100 NIL collectives across the country, with many Power Five schools operating with multiple. Among those specifically designed to support female athletes, only a handful exist. In college gymnastics, only one.
An article posted by Front Office Sports in January showed that only 34% of NIL collectives are offering deals to female athletes.
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The NIL Deal in January reviewed Opendorse’s NIL insights among female athletes, which concluded that brands are more apt to working with female athletes thanks in part to their more driven social media presence over male athletes. Despite the profitability of some of the top female athletes — in which Opendorse named 15 total — there is no denying a discrepancy between the top earners and the field of over 218,000 female collegiate athletes.
While many of the top earners in female athletics have a pipeline, that of course being basketball players to the WNBA, opportunities are still sparse, with only 36 roster spots drafted every year.
Dunne hopes that collectives can grow their opportunities to female athletes to allow them to cash in on their name, image and likeness before their careers end.
“There’s so many professional leagues for men’s sports after college, but there’s such a small timeframe for women to capitalize,” Dunne said.
“Opportunities for men and women in NCAA sports should be equal. But a lot of the NIL collectives only go to men’s athletics. I want to show you can do whatever you love — whether it’s gymnastics or music or painting — and capitalize on it and create your own business.”