The evolution of “name, image, and likeness” (NIL) deals in college sports has been fast and furious since the NCAA implemented a policy in July 2021 allowing incoming and current student-athletes to earn money from endorsements. Women athletes’ dominance in audience engagement within this emerging landscape warrants a closer look, and may well compel brands that traditionally gravitate toward men’s sports to revisit their marketing strategies.
Over the last year-plus, more than 730 brands have partnered with men in college sports–more than twice the 350+ brands that have inked deals with women. But despite female athletes’ relative lack of representation so far in the collegiate NIL space, they generate 4x the total audience engagement of male athletes, and 7x more engagement per deal.
While men have inked over 1,000 total deals with 2,000 total social media posts–compared to the 550+ deals and 1,100 posts for women–female athletes tally a total engagement score of over 27M, versus 6.5M for male athletes. Women’s posts engage followers at nearly 8x the rate of men’s posts (48K vs. 6.3K), while their percentage of engaged followers also trumps men’s, at 5.5% vs. 4.6%, respectively.
Women are also leading the way within each sport. While NIL deals in women’s basketball lag men’s basketball by more than 100, women’s total audience engagement numbers 5.4M, compared to 3.8M for men. Meanwhile, women’s softball athletes’ engagement on social media totals 1M–nearly 10x that of male baseball players–while their average engagement per post is 5x higher.
Olivia (Livvy) Dunne, a prolific TikToker and top gymnast at LSU, is one of the most popular athletes racking up NIL deals at the collegiate level. At 6M and counting, her staggering TikTok following exceeds that of all US college and professional athletes; Dunne currently partners with 13 brands on the app, with an average engagement of 634,683 per brand. Her total social media following of more than 8M has grown 56% in the last year, with an incredible engagement rate of nearly 9%.
Twins Hanna and Haley Cavinder, who play basketball for the University of Miami Hurricanes after transferring from Fresno State, are also scoring big in the NIL game. They’ve promoted 15 brands on their shared TikTok page for a total engagement of 1.4M, with each branded post averaging nearly 100K engagements. In December 2021, the WWE signed 15 college athletes to a partnership starring the twins.