For nearly two centuries, American colleges and universities have been playing sports. College athletes help bring in dollars to the school, whether from broadcasting revenue, sponsorship deals, merchandise sales, or any other lucrative avenues. Yet up until 2021, those athletes never received a dime. In fact, they’d be penalized for taking anything that seemed like a handout, even a free lunch from a booster. Former USC running back Reggie Bush had to vacate his Heisman Trophy (among other penalties) because his family received gifts that violated NCAA policies. The types of gifts Reggie received? A free limo ride to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. My oh my how much the world has changed since then.
Starting July 1, 2021 athletes gained the ability to participate in name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals. That meant they could find their own endorsement deals and use their sizable social media networks to earn extra money while playing non-professional college sports.
In the year and a half since NIL deals began, college athletes have earned an estimated total of $500 million from these deals. About half of that money has gone to college football players, who can use their influence to sell products or autographed memorabilia.
But one student-athlete has stood out from the rest. Is it a star quarterback for a national powerhouse? A high-scoring guard from a blue-blood basketball program?
Nope. It’s 5’6″ gymnast Olivia Dunne, a junior at LSU. Olivia has already earned an estimated $3 million in NIL deals so far and is on pace to make another $2 million per year while she’s in school. Here’s how she’s made it happen.
Dunne was born in Westwood, New Jersey in 2002 and was already beginning her gymnastics training in 2005. Her first elite debut was at the 2014 American Classic. Dunne kept competing and performed well enough that she qualified for the U.S. Nationals team in 2017.
She began attending college in 2020, which also happened to be the same year she joined the social media platform TikTok. Though Dunne first focused on content around her gymnastics, she soon gave followers a peek into other aspects of her life. And they liked what they saw. By the time NIL deals became legal, Dunne was already up to 4 million followers on TikTok with another 1 million on Instagram.
Dunne quickly got to work. In August 2021, she became the first NIL athlete for WME Sports. The following month, she announced a partnership with activewear brand Vuori, a deal worth a reported mid-six figures.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Dunne is attractive and stylish, opening the door to multiple partnerships in the fashion world. But she also shows an optimistic and bright personality on social media, which can be a nice burst of sunshine during the traditional gloomy news cycle. Her business savvy and knowledge of social platforms have helped, too. As of this writing, Dunne has 6.8 million followers on TikTok and 2.9 million followers on Instagram. That’s nearly 10 million people that can potentially see her content, which is very enticing for brands.
For athletes like Dunne, fellow gymnast Sunisa Lee, or twin basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder, college might be the last time they get to play their respective sports. They’re making the most of their time and have all earned at least $1 million.
As Dunne’s network continues to grow, it will open the door for more opportunities. She’s shown she’s not afraid to seize the moment.