On the shortlist of the highest profile collegiate athletes in the United States, Olivia Dunne stands out among the rest.
She has more than double the followers on social media on Instagram than if you combined the top 10 Heisman candidates.
She’s signed NIL deals with national brands such as Grubhub, Forever 21, American Eagle and an exclusive partnership with athleisure brand Vuori.
Most importantly, she’s a junior at LSU and an All-American gymnast.
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Despite what companies release about the NIL deals that happen on their websites and exchanges — take Opendorse for example, who said over 75% of their overall deals come from football and men’s basketball — some of the wealthiest college athletes happen to be women, with Dunne leading the pack.
How has she done it?
A former member of Team USA in 2017, Dunne has made a name for herself not just from her work in sports, but as a social media star.
With 2.3 million followers on Instagram — not to mention her 6.2 million followers on Tik Tok — she became the most followed NCAA athlete on social media in August 2021, shortly after NIL took effect. Posting content around gymnastics, her personal life and whatever the trendy TikTok dance is that week, Dunne has turned a fun pastime into a career.
In a new era of sports, driven by technology, social media and the all important dollar, Dunne is the gold standard of what building a personal brand can yield for collegiate athletes, advertising for her partnered brands in ways that support both herself and those companies.
However, while some consider Dunne’s social media persona a representation of herself, others believe her accounts can be considered ‘sexualized.’ For Tara VanDerveer, Dunne’s social media persona focuses on beauty over athletic excellence, thus being a “regression” for women in sports.
“I guess sometimes we have this swinging pendulum, where we maybe take two steps forward, and then we take a step back,” VanDerveer told the New York Times. “We’re fighting for all the opportunities to compete, to play, to have resources, to have facilities, to have coaches, and all the things that go with Olympic-caliber athletics.” VanDerveer added, “it’s a step back.”
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VanDerveer has strong opinions that hold weight. In her industry, as head coach of Stanford women’s basketball over the past 35 years, she is the most successful coach in the history of the sport. Since taking over the program in 1985, the Cardinal has made the NCAA tournament every year since 1987, advanced to the Final Four fourteen times and won all three of the programs NCAA titles under her watch.
At age 69, VanDerveer has seen plenty of changes in society, therefore making her a staunch advocate for women’s rights. Her formative years came at a tipping point for social justice and reform, from the civil rights movement, to the stonewall riots, to the continued fight for female equality. VanDerveer has seen trends in music and fashion explode in current day culture. Most importantly, the birth of modern technology has become the backbone of Dunne’s Generation-Z.
For Dunne, her social media success has never been about sexualizing content, rather developing a brand that aligns with her personal values. When posed with the idea that her content is sexualized, Dunne rebuttals, saying it comes down to “how much or how little you want to show.”
Despite VandDerveer’s criticisms, Dunne told the Times that her social media strategy has given her the ability to take advantage of NIL. While she didn’t directly reveal her career earnings, Dunne put it simply.
“Seven figures. That is something I am proud of. Especially since I’m a woman in college sports.”
Since the New York Times article was published on Tuesday, many women in sports have aided in the defense of Dunne, including former college golfer Paige Spiranac.
I’m so sick of women belittling accomplishments of other women because it’s done differently than they would. @livvydunne is getting hate for making 2 million a year. She’s built a successful business (at 20) all while being a student-athlete. That’s badass.— Paige Spiranac (@PaigeSpiranac) November 11, 2022
Spiranac, a former collegiate golfer at the University of Arizona and San Diego State, has used her athleticism and social media expertise to grow a similar following to Dunne. She has amassed a follower base of over 5.8 million across Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, and was ranked No. 1 on the Maxim Hot 100 in June.
Agree with VanDerveer or not, one thing is certain. As the NIL era trudges forward, the necessity to be a social media influencer has become paramount. In a recent interview with Adam Breneman, VP of NIL for Mercury, he told The NIL Deal, “I think what athletes don’t realize is that they’re probably never again going to be as relevant as they are at this very moment.”
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For Dunne, her current relevance, had social media not existed, would conclude by the time the junior graduates, if she became relevant at all.
Playing in a non-revenue sport with no professional ranks to continue her career, toppled with the competitiveness of Olympic gymnastics, Dunne’s premier time to stand out is now.
While the vast majority of NIL deals surround male athletes, particularly in football and basketball, some of the wealthiest college athletes are women.
Paige Bueckers has made hundreds upon thousands thanks to deals with StockX, Crocs and Gatorade, the latter of which has also signed fellow gymnast and gold medalist Sunisa Lee. Lee is listed as one of the top-25 wealthiest college athletes, partnering with Amazon, Target and most recently CLIF Bar.
Other female stars such as the Cavinder twins (Miami), Flau’jae Johnson (LSU), Haley Van Lith (Louisville) and Sedona Prince (Oregon) have made significant compensation through NIL and carry some of the highest social media followings for female athletes across the college and professional levels.
Whether or not Dunne’s media persona can be viewed as revealing or sexualized, she has become a trailblazer in the space for generations of female athletes to come. As technology grows, Dunne’s influence will be felt, pushing the boundaries of women in sports as both supreme athletes and influencers alike.