With sports like Women’s College Volleyball and Soccer in full swing — and Women’s Basketball and Gymnastics just around the corner — female college athletes are gaining ground on TikTok and Instagram. In fact, they have a 1M follower lead on the males, looking at Instagram’s top 15 college athletes. And now that these amazing young athletes are eligible to collaborate, brands have been teaming up with them at a record pace.
But are female college athletes a good fit for your next influencer campaign? Today, we’ll take a look at some of the most prominent talent, what successful partnerships have looked like, and what opportunities are out there for brands.
Over the summer, when policies allowing student athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness went into effect, there was a lot of speculation as to who would become the first college athlete to earn seven digits. The leading candidate was not Spencer Rattler, Instagram’s top performing college quarterback (392K). Nor was it Shareef O’neal (2.6M on Instagram), son of the legendary, backboard-shattering big man Shaq. Most people believed it would be the LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, a quintessential “that girl” with nearly 6M combined followers.
It’s easy to see why. Her sponsored posts — like this one with her doing warm-up stretches in a pair of Vuori joggers, or this one of her sharing her relationship green flags in casual sportswear, or this one of her kissing a laptop running the Bartleby tutoring app — have been getting a great response, averaging anywhere from 500K to 6M+ views per post.
Haley and Hanna Cavinder, a.k.a. the Cavinder twins, may be her nearest rival. With over 4M total followers, the twin sister basketball players recently started rolling out branded content for their partners. The most notable so far is a collaboration with PSD Underwear, who created a collection specifically for the TikTok rising stars. A video of them dancing in kitschy boy shorts and matching bras was viewed by over 1.6M people, making it one of the brand’s most successful collabs on the platform thus far.
While Olivia Dunne and the Cavinder twins are clearly at the top of the pyramid, the trend is much larger than them. Across nearly every college sport, there has been a flurry of activity between athletes and brands. Masai Russell, for instance, an eight time National Champion in Track and Field, has partnered with a multiplicity of brands including Hulu, Betterment (the robo-financial advisor app), and Cocokind skincare. She has 421K followers on TikTok and 155K on Instagram.
One of the biggest advantages, as the previous examples illustrate, is that they do big numbers on TikTok, often in addition to being a hot commodity on Instagram. In fact, of the top ten leading college athletes on Instagram, all five females are active on TikTok with sizable followings. Of the five males, only one, Shareef O’neal, uses the platform (1.5M).
Another advantage is social engagement. Popular women’s college sports — like volleyball, softball, and soccer — tend to have higher engagement rates than popular sports dominated by men — such as football, baseball, and men’s basketball — according to data analysis by Out of Bounds.
Female college athletes are also quite versatile in terms of social reach. They are a good choice whether you’re looking to partner with mega influencers with 1M+ followers, micro-influencers with 50K and below, or someone in between.
Take college cheerleaders as an example. Gabi Butler became an internet celebrity (4M combined followers) after appearing on the Netflix Cheer docuseries. Her co-star Shannon Woolsey, who now cheers at Texas Tech, has a more modest following (248K on Instagram). They both make fantastic brand ambassadors, with Shannon promoting products more tailored towards the cheer community and Gabi doing marketing aimed at broader audiences.
Female gymnasts continue to gain followers on social channels, basking in the afterglow of a successful performance by Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. Chief among them, Jordan Chiles (441K on Instagram, 239K on TikTok) heads off to school with substantial endorsement deals in tow after winning Silver in the Women’s Team All-around alongside “Dancing with the Stars” sensation Suni Lee. She’s done content for Crocs footwear, Curls organic hair products, and Aritzia fashion boutique, among others.
In the past, many Olympic gymnasts elected to forgo their college careers, as NCAA rules prohibited them from profiting on their immense celebrity. But with the new NIL legislation, stars like Chiles and Lee are opting to honor their college commitments.
As a result, the sport is practically guaranteed to see a surge in popularity. Shrewd brands would be savvy to team up with prominent competitors before the season begins, and many are doing just that. Michael Kors has teamed up with LSU’s Elena Arenas (56K on Instagram), and Third Love is partnering with Norah Flatley of UCLA (83K), for instance.
Halfway into the season, brands have gotten behind female college volleyball players in a big way. There’s literally been partnerships popping up all over the place. Some brands maneuvering in this space include Degree antiperspirant, healthy beverage brands, and body-hugging D2C clothing brands who benefit from being seen on curvy physiques.
University of Virginia’s premier spike blocker Alana Walker (194K on Instagram; 208K on TikTok) is a great example of what volleyball players have to offer as ambassadors. She has teamed up with Bo+Tee active apparel, Harmless Harvest organic coconut water, and helped promote the Lollapalooza music festival. Other examples of viable mid-tier volleyball influencers include Oregon’s Brooke Nuneviller and Natalie Smith of San Diego State.
Soccer & Field Hockey
Female sports played on the pitch, such as soccer and field hockey, likewise present solid partnership opportunities. On the soccer side, Brooke Roberts is a standout midfielder for the Arkansas Razorbacks, and she has worked with brands including Amazon Prime and Gen Z eco-friendly water. As a side note, eco-friendly, organic, and otherwise all-natural brands really resonate well with female college athletes.
As for field hockey, the sport is more popular on social media than you might think, with top players well-positioned for brand partnerships. University of Maryland’s Julianna Tornetta (116K on TikTok), for instance, has done content for Alo Yoga, while UNC’s Cassie Sumfest (50K on TikTok) is a Fabletics partner — the activewear brand founded by actress Kate Hudson.