Louisiana State gymnast Olivia Dunne is one of the most recognizable athletes on social media.
The 20-year-old college junior has 2.4 million Instagram followers — and industry analysts project her name, image and likeness, or NIL, evaluation is estimated to be worth just as much. It’s been estimated that a single social media post by Dunne is worth $31,000.
The prominent college star is from North Jersey, with strong ties to the local sports scene. The Hillsdale native has a long history with the Eastern National Academy of Paramus, which she is represented at national and international competitions, including stints with the US national team.
Dunne’s athletic achievements are, of course, impressive. During her first year as an LSU Tiger, she was named an All-American. But a big part of her legacy will likely be the impact she has had on college athletics in this brave new world that is NIL. Thanks to new rules set in place in the summer of 2021, college athletes can profit off their name, image and likeness through sponsorship deals — and what a year and a half it’s been.
The economics of NIL are complex — and often, private. It’s unclear how much Dunne makes. Earlier this month, she told The New York Times that her earnings are somewhere in the “seven figures.”
“That is something I’m proud of,” she told The Times. “Especially since I’m a woman in college sports.” She added: “There are no professional leagues for most women’s sports after college.”
In the earliest days of NIL, women were shaping up to be clear winners. Female college athletes have long been on the receiving end of less investment and less airtime — which consequently leads to less profit when compared to the male side of collegiate sports. Though college athletic departments are required to provide equal investment for female and male sports, thanks to Title IX, experts have told me these inequalities can often be overlooked by lack of enforcement.
NIL in many ways is a silver lining for female athletes. They can now earn a living playing sports in a way that no athlete before them could. As Dunne alluded, the prospects for women to make money post-college in their chosen sport is often limited.
What Dunne has been able to accomplish is no easy feat. Experts suggest that her earnings outpace her peers’ by a landslide, according to data collected by ON3, a college sports digital media, data and marketing company. The firm last month compiled the top 10 NIL valuations for female college athletes.
Topping that list is Dunne. With 8.74 million followers combined on all social media platforms, Dunne has an NIL valuation of $2.3 million and $31,000 per post value. For comparison, the second athlete on the list is fellow gymnast Sunisa Lee, who became a national sensation last summer after winning Olympic gold with Team USA in Tokyo. With 31.5 million followers, Lee has an NIL valuation of $1.5 million and a $21,000 per post value.
NIL, of course, is not immune to the larger issues surrounding women’s sports. That top 10 list, for example, only includes two athletes of color, including Lee. Athletes of color historically reel in significantly less money and media attention than their peers, as seen in some pro leagues like the WNBA. In some ways, NIL renews this conversation — and offers a real opportunity to level the playing field.
As Dunne continues to rise to NIL fame, at her core, she remains an athlete who fell in love with her sport.
In a 2020 video posted on her club’s Instagram account, a 17-year-old Dunne talks about being team captain, what she likes to do outside of her sport, and her proudest achievement as a gymnast thus far. She also talks about how it feels to be a gymnast. “To do gymnastics, it feels like you’re defying gravity for a split second — and then you need to be ready for the landing,” she says.
In many ways, Dunne is defying what it means to be a female college athlete in 2022. And it sure will be exciting to see where she lands next.