The impact of social media on NCAA sports

A couple of years ago, while scrolling through YouTube, I came across this video. In it, UCLA gymnast Kaetlyn Ohashi performs her 2018 floor routine. For this routine, she and her team won their conference title and as can be seen, by the view count, went viral on social media.1

It was this video that led me into the rabbit hole of college gymnastics and before you knew it I was completely hooked. For those who don’t know what college gymnastics is. It as the name suggests is the league in which gymnastics teams from different colleges compete against one another. This league is regulated by the NCAA (The National Collegiate Athletic Association).2

Next to gymnastics, there are countless other college sports, the two biggest being Football and basketball. These two sports alone are responsible for making billions in revenue for the NCAA.3 It was then quite a surprising fact for me that the student-athletes responsible for you know actually playing the sport, make essentially zero dollars from their participation in college sports.

Student-athletes are what is known as amateur athletes, meaning that they don’t make money from their image, name and likeliness. The argument for this is that these students instead get compensated with a full scholarship for the college they compete for. The thing is that not all of these student-athletes receive a full scholarship since there are only specific numbers of scholarships colleges can give out per sport. The other athletes also called walk-ons, get no compensation, while they do compete and contribute to the amount of revenue made by the NCAA. This has been a controversial topic for a long time now. The conversation around college sports increasingly became more and more for the removal of this rule, and on 1 July 2021, a new policy went into effect doing just so. From that date on student-athletes across all NCAA programs were able to make money from their image, name and likeliness.5

In the traditional sense, you expect the best players from the most popular sports to be the most profitable. And although this is true, when looking at the rankings made about which student-athletes can make the most money, there are a couple of surprising names to be found. One of them sitting at the top 2 of the list is LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne. The reason for her inclusion in the lists is not because, she is a particularly impressive stand-out athlete (although she is really talented, there are arguably better gymnasts on her team alone) or that she has won many title’s. No the reason she is included is that she has more than a million followers on TikTok, more than any other current student-athlete.6 Olivia Dunne is one example of the absolute power social media has on the monetary capabilities of student-athletes.

Going back to Kaetlyn Ohashi, while in 2018 she was able to rock some waves, it was nothing compared to what she was able to do a year later. In 2019 the UCLA Athletics YouTube channel uploaded this video of her new floor routine for which she then received the coveted “perfect 10” (the highest score possible in college gymnastics).7

This one video blew the one from 2018 completely out of the water, with 218 million views and counting (also not considering the number of views garnered on other platforms). She single-handedly created an amount of interest in the sport, only comparable to what happens during the Olympics. Unfortunately for Kaetlyn Ohashi, she competed during a time in which she could not capitalize on her newfound fame. One can only imagine the amount of money she could have made.

For as good as Kaetlyn Ohashi was, she was certainly not the only one who could and can perform such excellent gymnastics. There have been many before her and there are many now that are all capable of similar floor routines and there have been a couple of “viral” routines, but none on the level of this one.7 The difference was that behind Kaetlyn, was a very competent social media team, who are responsible for bringing this routine into the limelight. Through savvy social media strategies, the UCLA gymnastics team has created the largest following of all the UCLA teams, even more than the renowned basketball and football teams.8 And even though UCLA did not end up winning the national title that year, it did not harm their popularity. In fact, it only increased. Shown by the many “viral” UCLA floor routines since. A feat almost no other gymnastics team seems to have been able to achieve.7

This all goes to show the insane impact social media can have on NCAA sports and sports in general. It does not just pay to be good at what you do and win, but you should also have a very strong social media presence otherwise you might just get overlooked when it comes to sponsorships. This has its positives and its negatives. On the one hand, it gives athletes from smaller sports like gymnastics a chance to make good money. But on the other hand, it can end up being just a popularity contest in which usually a specific type tends to get the most attention. It also can be quite a hindrance to the athletes themselves, since you do not only have to invest a large amount of time into your sport but now also your social media, seemingly forgetting the student part.

With this new policy being only in its infancy, it is interesting to see how it will further evolve and what the impact will be on NCAA sports. It can potentially change the strategies of colleges over who they sign, will they go for the best athletes or will they go for athletes with a larger social media presence. Or will it change the way athletes choose their colleges, will you go for the one you like more or the one that increases your chances at getting sponsorships. One thing is for certain and that is that social media has become an integral part of being a student-athlete and that will probably only increase going forward.


Footnotes:

  1. https://www.simplemost.com/gymnasts-michael-jackson-floor-routine-goes-viral/
  2. https://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/ncaa-101/what-ncaa
  3. https://www.scacchoops.com/top-5-ncaa-sports-by-viewership
  4. https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/sports/explainer-ncaa-impact-nil-compensation/2545041/
  5. https://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/news/ncaa-adopts-interim-name-image-and-likeness-policy
  6. https://www.actionnetwork.com/ncaab/ranking-top-20-college-athletes-favorites-capitalize-name-image-likeness-july-1
  7. https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2021-02-13/viral-gymnastics-routines-gain-steam-ucla-katelyn-ohashi-nia-dennis
  8. https://dailybruin.com/2021/08/05/sam-settles-it-ncaa-gymnastics-ready-for-a-big-leap-in-viewership-following-summer-olympics