The concept of the ‘influencer athlete’ may still be relatively new, but the need to be active on social media as well as the field of play is now the norm for today’s sports stars.
“It could be a sign of the times,” says Garrett Yaralian, an agent at WME Sports, who also heads up the agency’s name, image and likeness (NIL) division. “[The term ‘influencer athlete’] doesn’t bother us too much.”
Yaralian has good reason to beat the drum for this new generation of athlete. Along with fellow WME agent Jason Rosenberg, he represents Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers gymnast Olivia Dunne, whose mix of athletic ability and vast online following has garnered her widespread attention. Armed with 4.4 million Instagram followers and a further 7.8 million on TikTok, Dunne recently secured 30th spot on this year’s list of the world’s 50 Most Marketable (50MM) Athletes, climbing 14 places from 44th in the 2022 ranking.
Dunne, who was WME Sports’ first NIL athlete, may be an outlier for the agency, which also represents the likes of Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, but the decision to sign her in August 2021 came amid something of a perfect storm.
The 21-year-old had been tipped to be one of the biggest earners after the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) gave the go ahead for student-athletes to start profiting from selling their NIL rights. Dunne, who grew up competing with top Olympic gymnasts, had already accumulated a considerable social media following and was in prime position to take her marketability to the next level. She has since earnt millions from partnerships with active wear company Vuori and energy drink Accelerator Active Energy, as well as fashion brands Forever 21 and American Eagle, among others.
Dunne is joined in this year’s 50MM ranking by fellow LSU Tiger Angel Reese. The 21-year-old basketball ace cracked the top 20 with a ranking of 19th – putting her above stars such as Harry Kane, Rory McIlroy and even last year’s number one athlete Cristiano Ronaldo. Dunne, meanwhile, is deemed more marketable than Erling Haaland, Rafael Nadal and Patrick Mahomes.
The 50MM ranking was produced in partnership with NorthStar Solutions Group, whose methodology placed Reese second and Dunne 13th for total addressable market (TAM), which incorporates factors such as their overall reach, attention growth, social sentiment, and audience engagement. They also scored high for authenticity, which speaks to their ability to represent their true selves when communicating with their audience on social media – and even when promoting sponsors.
Their high ranking may raise eyebrows in some quarters, but US sports lawyer Darren Heitner, who was a key figure in pushing Florida’s Student Athlete Achievement Act, which allows college athletes to earn money from endorsement deals, isn’t surprised by Reese and Dunne’s 50MM showing.
“I think it’s very deserved,” says Heitner. “Angel is ensuring that she associates with the best and brightest brands and not be oversaturated. She has done a remarkable job keeping herself extremely relevant, perhaps sometimes a bit provocative, but never going to the extremes. She is extremely engaging with her fanbase.
“Similarly, Olivia from the very beginning of NIL has been not only a standout ambassador, an endorser of brands, but has also done a tremendous job for other female athletes as well.”
‘Relatable and aspirational’
Boasting a sizeable online following or being a standout in a certain sport does not necessarily guarantee marketability. Of course, one is certainly helpful and having both is even better. In Reese and Dunne’s case, they possess an alluring mix of talent, personality and work ethic, as well as “the look”, according to Heitner.
“They have clean records and won’t be putting brands in uncomfortable positions,” he continues. “They are tremendous at actually delivering upon the promises in contractual arrangements with brands and make it quite simple and pleasurable for those brands to work with them.”
For Yaralian, Dunne’s appeal stems from her being “an all-American girl next door with incredible ability”, coupled with a flair for engaging social media content.
“She’s a pretty unique combination of being relatable and aspirational,” adds Rosenberg. “She’s a college student, which is relatable to a lot of younger people. But she is this elite athlete, businesswoman, influencer, brand ambassador which is aspirational for a lot of fans and followers and brands. That’s a pretty interesting angle.”
Reese, nicknamed the ‘Bayou Barbie’ and represented by Ethos Group and longtime agent Jeanine Ogbonnaya, is also making hay in the NIL era, reportedly striking more endorsement deals than any other player – male or female – in the NCAA’s basketball tournament. Pacts with big-name brands including Bose, McDonald’s and Xfinity put her seventh in On3’s ranking, which tracks NIL deals, with a US$1.7 million valuation. Dunne is third with US$3.2 million, making her the top NIL earner in the US among female athletes.
Reese and Dunne even featured together on the cover of October’s edition of Sports Illustrated, fittingly titled ‘The Money Issue’.
Striking the right balance
Despite Reese and Dunne’s achievements, labelling either of them an ‘influencer athlete’ could be construed as a negative. The term can also be used to describe the likes of JJ ‘KSI’ Olatunji and the Paul brothers Jake and Logan, who made their name on YouTube before identifying boxing as another money spinner.
The trio have racked up millions of pay-per-view (PPV) buys – Logan Paul has even fought all-time great Floyd Mayweather Jr – but their fights have been, at best, theatre and, at worst, unsavoury. None of them are going to win a major boxing title and they are unashamedly profiting off their notoriety.
Reese and Dunne are different. They started off as athletes before social media celebrity followed. Now they serve as leading examples for any athlete looking to amplify their sporting careers by generating extra online attention. Finding the balance and support, though, is crucial.
“[Dunne has] got a very strong support system within her family,” says Yaralian. “She and her sister, who helps with a lot of her social media, are very close. Julz [Dunne’s sister] does a lot of great editing and is great at keeping her on schedule. Her mum and dad are also very involved.
“She’s a great case study for young athletes that can build an audience and create a business out of influencing and social media and working in the NIL space. I think it’s a combination of being social media savvy and then, obviously, being an elite athlete.”
“I’m not a big fan of categorising anyone as an influencer necessarily,” says Heitner. “I do believe that [Reese and Dunne] are quite influential. Angel and Olivia, and other female [student-athletes] who rose to the top in terms of endorsement capacity in the early stages of NIL, are providing a landscape where so many other female and male athletes will continue to be able to take advantage of this very unique opportunity that I think will become quite commonplace.”
Planning for the future
Reese has already represented the US at international level, helping the team win silver at the 2023 Fiba Women’s AmeriCup. She now has her sights set on the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), having last year transferred to the LSU programme, which has its own NIL dedicated staff, to help with her preparations. Assuming she makes it, Reese would see her salary limited to no more than US$75,000 next year under the WNBA’s rookie pay scale.
Dunne’s future, however, is still a work in progress. She is only in her early 20s but careers for top gymnasts can be brief and brutal. Whatever path she does choose, she won’t be short of offers.
“It’s still coming together,” says Rosenberg. “Once she is out of school, a lot of opportunities will become available to her.
“She’s interested in building out her own brand, a line of products, [including] fashion, fitness, beauty, health and wellness. Everything from podcasts to potentially TV work. The world is kind of her oyster. She’s being very selective right now but she’s going to have all kinds of opportunities to build her profile.
“She’ll always be around the sport of gymnastics and supporting female athletes in some capacity, both at LSU and nationwide.”
The next generation
It may feel premature to start speculating which student-athletes could make the cut for next year’s 50MM but, such is the direction of travel in the NIL space, it feels inevitable that more will be in contention. There were, after all, another two NCAA athletes in this year’s top 125.
Heitner identifies Bronny James, the son of National Basketball Association (NBA) icon LeBron James, and Shedeur Sanders, whose father Deion Sanders played for a combined 23 seasons in the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB), as standouts. He also reckons University of Southern California (USC) Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams could be in the running.
The intricacies of NIL rules on a state-by-state basis mean there are still some issues to iron out but Heitner believes things are “getting there”, suggesting even more potential for student-athletes across the US to leverage their marketability.
“I think it’s case by case,” notes Yaralian. “It depends on the athlete. But, as we know, social media and creating content and growing your audience is so important now so I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more athlete influencers.”
And what about more NIL student-athletes joining WME Sports or other agency giants?
“In short, the right ones for sure,” reveals Rosenberg. “We’re pretty selective on who we approach and who we can actually build a business around.”
“[Dunne] is an outlier for WME Sports,” says Yaralian. “For us looking for future clients, that’s something where we would like to build relationships and bring value to NIL clients and then, hopefully, also grow with them as they become professional athletes in their sport.”