How NIL has transformed gymnastics for Olympians, NCAA and beyond
Jan 24, 2023 Alyssa RoenigkESPN Close Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN whose…
VANESSA ATLER TOSSES a Reese’s peanut butter cup into the air, throws a tumbling pass atop a balance beam, catches the cup with one hand and takes a bite. “There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s,” the 1999 ad says. Its underlying message: This girl is going to the Sydney Olympics next summer. You saw her here first.
One of the most popular faces of USA Gymnastics at the time, Atler, then 17, signed with an agent, landed a few deals and banked some cash. The 1997 national champion imagined making the team and signing post-Olympic deals like Mary Lou Retton and members of 1996’s Magnificent Seven. “We thought, ‘I’m in a good position right now,” Atler, now 40, says. “No way I’m not going to make the Olympics. And I’ll make so much money afterward that I’ll be able to pay to go to college.'”
That’s not how her story played out.
Atler was controversially left off the 2000 Olympic team and her earning potential went the way of her Olympic dreams. Several of her contracts, she says, required she be named to the team to pay out. Because Atler profited from her sport, she’d lost her amateur status and couldn’t accept an NCAA scholarship. (She planned to attend UCLA.) She watched from home as her peers who retained their amateur status competed for college programs on the rise. Atler’s story became a cautionary tale.
“That was the moment it hit me,” she says. “I didn’t know anything other than gymnastics and when it was gone, I regretted my decision [to turn pro]. I never thought the [amateurism] rule would change.”
Then, seemingly overnight, it did. In July 2021, on the heels of a unanimous Supreme Court decision, the NCAA changed its rules to allow athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness — to sign deals with Hershey’s, for example — and retain their amateur status. Before then, elite gymnasts — those who competed for the national team and in the Olympics — had two options: accept money at the peak of their careers and forego competing in college or maintain their amateur (unpaid) status and sign with an NCAA team.
But now, gymnasts no longer have to choose. From reigning Olympic all-around champion Suni Lee to Louisiana State University social media star Olivia Dunne, they can compete in college and profit like their peers who turned pro in the past. In the 18 months since the NCAA changed its policy, NIL has provided gymnasts at every level of the sport with more options, changed recruiting and blurred the lines between college and elite.
Now, elites can change their minds
Konnor McClain didn’t think she wanted to compete in college. Much like Atler, the 2022 U.S. senior national all-around champion was focused solely on the Olympics. “Everybody turns pro after the Olympics,” McClain, 17, says. “So, I was like, ‘I don’t want to compete in college instead of making all the money I could as an Olympic champion.'”
Unlike her siblings, who saw college as a pipeline to the pros and a means to extend their softball, baseball and football careers, McClain felt college was a roadblock. But after NIL passed, college coaches came knocking with scholarship offers that weren’t contingent on turning down sponsorship deals. “I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I do want to go to college,'” McClain says. In August 2021, less than two months after the NCAA approved NIL, she committed to LSU.
McClain is part of the first generation of elites who don’t have to make the life-changing and unalterable decision of whether to turn pro. She also has the freedom to change her mind. “That’s the best thing about NIL,” Atler says. “It’s giving the power back to the athletes.”
At first, McClain’s older sister, Olivia, a softball player at Niagara University in New York, advised her on contracts. But she recently signed with an agent, inked a handful of small deals and is working to build her social media following, which skyrocketed after she won nationals in August. She’s building her brand now so she can capitalize in the future, as an Olympian or an NCAA star.
McClain plans to defer her freshman year until after the 2024 Games to focus on her elite career. And after watching Olympians Jade Carey (Oregon State) and Jordan Chiles (UCLA) successfully juggle college and elite gymnastics, she’s even considering making a run at the 2028 Games while competing for the Tigers.
“There’s so many choices I could make in the next few years,” McClain says.
Collegiate gymnastics has soared in popularity in recent years. Last April’s NCAA championships was the most-watched college gymnastics meet on ESPN networks in history. In November, Auburn announced its season tickets had sold out for the second year in a row (and only the second time ever). A month later, single-meet, standing room only tickets went on sale and also sold out.
All that excitement makes NCAA gymnastics — and its Olympians — more attractive to sponsors. Competing in college keeps gymnasts like Lee, Carey and Chiles in the media and in front of fans in non-Olympic years. “Because Suni can compete every year, her audience and connection will continue to grow,” says Kamal Bhandal, vice president of global consumer and brand marketing for Invisalign, which partnered with Lee last year. “For us, it’s about the ability for an athlete’s story to stay alive in the marketplace in an ongoing basis.”
Those athletes can also jump between programs. In November, Lee, who is in her second season with the Tigers, announced plans to leave Auburn after this season and return to the national team in hopes of making the 2024 Olympics.
McClain says she also feels the impact those gymnasts are having on USA Gymnastics when she attends national team camps.
“They’re bringing the fun,” she says. “We didn’t always have fun like they do on NCAA teams. Elite was so serious and now it’s a little happier. And fans who only watched NCAA are watching elite now. NIL is bringing the two worlds together.”
Now, juniors don’t have to choose
Dulcy Caylor is too young for college coaches to recruit. A 15-year-old freshman, she’ll earn her high school diploma in 2026, two years after the Paris Olympics and two years before the Los Angeles Games. Her childhood dream was “being on a Wheaties box, doing some fun advertisements and then competing in college.”
Before NIL, she and her parents would have had to figure out which part of her dream Caylor wanted most. Because, like Atler before her, being on a Wheaties box and “doing fun advertisements” would have precluded Caylor from competing for a college team.
But with NIL, the dinner-table conversations at the Caylor house shifted, while her dreams didn’t have to. “We’re thankful she doesn’t have to make that life-altering choice to be one or the other,” Caylor’s mom, Amy, says.
Amy has spent hours reading and researching NIL, following its ever-changing rules and state-specific guidelines. She checks with USA Gymnastics to make sure her daughter doesn’t jeopardize her NCAA eligibility. She learns from older gymnasts such as University of Florida super-senior Leah Clapper, who recently launched NIL Island, an online resource for athletes and their families. When the time comes, the level of NIL support a school offers will factor into the Caylors’ decision. (Spoiler alert: Caylor already has her eye on the Gators.)
Some schools, like Florida, offer NIL classes for credit. Others offer experts, training and software programs to educate and assist student-athletes and their families. And while NIL expanded the recruitment pool for college coaches, it also changed the calculus for young gymnasts and their families during the recruiting process.
“Parents want to know if the athletes are being promoted more locally or nationally,” Gators head coach Jenny Rowland says. “They want to know what kind of deals our athletes are getting, how much they are making.”
Because of the individual and performative nature of gymnastics, its young athletes are as social media savvy as any in sports. Many have accounts run by their parents and some choose to showcase their personalities outside of gymnastics. Kristi Dosh, a sports business and personal branding expert who teaches an NIL class at UF, says gymnasts were particularly poised to capitalize on NIL.
“Gymnastics parents, especially at the highest level, have been thinking about this and brand-building for years, especially if their kids were elites without plans to compete in college,” Dosh says. “Gymnasts tend to have large, engaged followings. It’s a sport where athletes compete at the highest level before college. More than other sports, a lot of youth athletes follow them, and they are very engaged.”
Although Caylor has an Instagram page with around 1,700 followers, she posts only about gymnastics and mostly about her meets. “I’m camera-shy,” Caylor says. “I’m not really into social media.”
Amy Caylor says she looks to former college athletes such as Katelyn Ohashi as an example of the type of gymnast her daughter might become. Had Ohashi competed for UCLA in the NIL era, her viral floor routines likely would have earned her major deals.
“Katelyn wasn’t somebody who was pushing herself on social media, trying to brand herself,” Amy Caylor says. “She went viral because she had great routines. Even somebody as shy as Dulcy on social media could succeed like that.”
Now, colleges can expand recruiting
“The majority of the past Olympic team is in college and still doing international competitions,” Rowland says. “I get goose bumps just thinking of it. There is a new path being carved out by these young women.”
Pre-NIL, Rowland was one of the best in the country at recruiting elite gymnasts. She and her program had a growing reputation for knowing what elites needed, mentally and physically, after leaving the national team and for encouraging them to take ownership of their careers. But her recruiting options with elites were limited.
“When I first got to Florida, I started having conversations with elites who were deciding, ‘Am I going to go pro or am I not?’ I remember getting a phone call in the middle of the 2016 Olympics from a gymnast saying, ‘Hey, I made the commitment [to UF] but in fact I am going to go pro,'” Rowland says. “We knew there was a good chance that was going to happen, and I appreciated her openness and transparency.”
That gymnast was Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez. While it was disappointing to lose an athlete of her caliber, Rowland knew Hernandez made the best call for her future. But Rowland still wonders what could have been if Hernandez had competed during the NIL era. Seven members of Florida’s current roster were national team members, including 2017 world all-around champion Morgan Hurd, 2019 world champion Riley McCusker, 2021 world all-around bronze medalist Kayla DiCello, 2022 NCAA all-around champ Trinity Thomas and 2022 world champion Leanne Wong, who double-dipped as a Gator and national team member last season.
“USA Gymnastics and the NCAA have figured out how to make that work,” Rowland says. “The athletes on the national team have to attend camps every month and that’s really challenging for an NCAA athlete, especially from January to April, when we have meets every weekend.” USAG, Rowland says, now allows NCAA athletes to miss national team camps, provided they’re training with their school. “Three athletes went all the way through this past NCAA season and made the world championship team,” Rowland says. “They showed it’s possible, but it’s challenging.”
Along with their fan bases, elite gymnasts have brought upgraded skills to NCAA gymnastics. Last February, Lee became the first NCAA gymnast to perform a Nabieva — a release move with the highest difficulty rating in elite gymnastics — on bars. But Rowland says while she can see the NCAA making a modification to its code of points to encourage gymnasts to attempt more difficult skills, she doesn’t see the sport moving too far in the direction of elite gymnastics.
NCAA gymnastics still judges on a 10-point scale, which favors flawlessness but doesn’t reward athletes for attempting elite-level skills. Elite gymnastics uses an open-ended scoring system that values difficulty and results in scores such as 16.9 and 15.8, which can seem arbitrary to the casual fan.
“When we talk about elites, we’re talking about a slight percentage of the highly competitive athletes we have in the U.S.,” Rowland says. “If anything, I think [elite gymnastics] is going to come back to the 10. People are gravitating to NCAA gymnastics because they know what a perfect 10 is.”
Now, collegiate gymnasts have more opportunities
NIL or not, there’s little doubt Lee, Chiles and Carey would have signed deals after Tokyo. But Olympians make up .00001 percent of all gymnasts, so NIL isn’t just about them.
“NIL deals aren’t all based on an athlete’s ability as a gymnast,” Dosh says. “For some, it’s based on her following and aspects of her life and her personal brand outside of sport.”
Take Olivia “Livvy” Dunne, a junior at LSU. Dunne is a former national team member and uneven bars specialist, but she isn’t an Olympian and isn’t the top gymnast on her college squad. She began building her social media following around the age of 10, and then, as a freshman in 2020, started making TikTok videos during the pandemic to entertain herself and her followers.
Dunne — who today has 2.9 million followers on Instagram and 6.7 million on TikTok — was uniquely positioned to capitalize on NIL. She has signed a reported $2.7 million in brand deals in the past year and a half and, according to most metrics, is the most popular woman athlete in college sports.
“For women’s athletics, there’s not a lot of professional leagues after college,” Dunne says. “So being a woman and being at the forefront of this NIL stuff means the world to me.”
Home-schooled since seventh grade, Dunne was able to focus on gymnastics and fit in her studies in the evenings and on weekends. But since returning to in-person class at LSU last year, she has had to learn to run a business while juggling her studies, practices and meets.
“It’s a lot of work,” Dunne says. “It’s all about balancing when I can make the ads. I practice, I have school and now work is thrown in. I carve out certain times of the day where I make time to [create content]. I’ve learned a lot about time management.”
She’s also learning what type of content increases her following and attracts new partners. “It’s important to make my ads entertaining to my audience,” Dunne says. “My brand is gymnastics, athletics, lifestyle. And I try to cater to girls and boys. Right now, the boys are outweighing the girls because of TikTok. But gymnastics is so important to me. I have a big following of girls from that, so to be a good example to them is very important.”
With large brands promoting her in campaigns and constant media coverage, Dunne has become a star the likes of which NCAA sports has rarely seen. At LSU’s sold-out season opener at the University of Utah in early January, hundreds of fans — most of them teenage boys — disrupted the meet by screaming loudly for Dunne, who was out of the lineup because of injury.
That type of attention could be disruptive to not only her teammates’ beam routines, but the team dynamic. Dunne says she works hard to keep her work life out of the gym. “When we’re in the locker room, nobody talks about brand deals,” she says. “Nobody’s talking about money. We’re just talking about normal college kid stuff. And whenever I do a personal brand deal, I want to get something for my whole team. Last year when I signed with Vuori, I gifted them leggings, sports bras and stuff.”
Dunne says she takes her time before signing with brands and, when possible, reaches long-term deals that allow her to create relationships that could last beyond her gymnastics career. NIL has shown Dunne and Clapper, who graduated with a degree in advertising and is working toward a master’s in entrepreneurship at UF, that they can run successful businesses.
Clapper realized she had a knack for collaborating with brands and creating campaigns that spoke to her community. She used her following to land brand deals, launched NIL Island and founded a direct-to-consumer company and e-commerce site where she sells a gymnastics board game she created. “One of the biggest things that has come out of NIL for me is realizing I’m already an entrepreneur,” Clapper says. “It’s affected my career goals.”
It has also affected her daily life in the gym.
“At Florida, we had this basket we had to put our cellphones into during practice,” Clapper says. “You couldn’t touch it. But since NIL, we’re allowed to make vlogs about our bars routines and the coaches are fine with us pulling out our phones in the gym, which I’m grateful for. They can see how much NIL is changing our lives.”