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Are rising social media stars good for women’s sports?

(NewsNation) — With more than 11 million followers across Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, 20-year-old Olivia Dunne is one of the most popular college athletes on social media.

That following has led to massive endorsement deals for the Louisiana State University (LSU) gymnast whose contracts with companies like American Eagle Outfitters, Grubhub and Vuori are worth an estimated $3 million.

Despite the lucrative opportunities, some prominent figures in women’s sports have questioned whether the emphasis on beauty that social media promotes is a move in the right direction.

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, who is one of the most successful coaches in Division I women’s basketball history, called the changes a “step back” in a recent interview with the New York Times. VanDerveer expressed concerns that the technology is upholding sexist notions.

Dunne, who regularly posts dancing videos and photos in swimsuits, has stood by her content.

“As a woman you’re not responsible for how a man looks at you and objectifies you,” Dunne said in a recent interview. “That’s not a woman’s responsibility.”

The Division I gymnast, who is in her junior year, earned All-America honors on uneven bars as a freshman but has faced injuries this season. She’s become so popular that her team recently introduced new security measures.

Dunne’s seven-figure earnings are relatively new in the world of college sports after a 2021 NCAA rule change made it possible for athletes to make money of their name, image and likeness (NIL). Much of that value is derived through social media engagement.

Altogether, the top five highest grossing earners for women’s collegiate sports make more than $7 million a year.

That list includes University of Miami basketball players, Haley and Hannah Cavinder, who are more commonly known to their 4.5 million TikTok followers as the Cavinder twins.

But the vast majority of the highest paid NIL student athletes are still men. Just five of the top 50 most valuable NIL athletes are women, according to The highest earner is LeBron James’ son, Bronny James, whose NIL deals are worth an estimated $7.2 million, almost $4 million more than Dunne makes.

Marysol Castro — a former college athlete who went on to become the first female PA announcer for the New York Mets — doesn’t think it’s right to say women are leveraging the “sex sells” adage while men continue to dominate earnings.

“I think it’s completely unfair,” said Castro. “If they’re (women) going to get paid, they need to get paid, the playing field has not been level, period, full stop.”   

Castro pointed out that many college athletes won’t have the opportunity to play at the professional level, so now is one of the only opportunities to capitalize on their years of training.

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