When it comes to NIL reality check, look at Florida gymnasts, not LSU's Olivia Dunne

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

The NCAA’s Name, Image and Likeness legislation turns 600 days old next week. And recently, NIL can’t be talked about without the University of Florida being brought up.

Those involved with NIL deals at UF are still applying ice packs to its blackened eye after a $13 million deal with prized quarterback prospect Jaden Rashada went south last month, resulting in the 5-star California native signing with Arizona State instead.

And the entire situation is too bad considering NIL isn’t supposed to work that way.

It’s too bad considering the near-20-month-old legislation was never intended to serve as a platform to legally bid on high school prospects.

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It’s too bad the University of Florida had to become the example that everyone knew would exist one day.

But perhaps more than anything, it’s too bad a story about a 17-year-old high schooler who has never played in a single competition for the Gators will overshadow the countless stories of NIL working as it’s intended to work in Gainesville.

Don’t believe me? Turn your eyes to the second-ranked Florida Gators gymnastics team.

Leah Clapper's entrepreneurial spirit breeds NIL success

Gators gymnast Leah Clapper was in sixth grade when a life-simulation program at her middle school served as a heavy dose of foreshadowing.

Clapper and her classmates each drew cards with random occupations written on them. Her draw? Entrepreneur. 

“I don’t even know what it means, but I want to be it,” Clapper recalls thinking. “When I found out it meant starting and running businesses, I was so intrigued. I’m not sure why I had a natural attraction to it, but I did.”

But when Clapper signed with the University of Florida to compete in gymnastics in 2017, she’d have to suppress her entrepreneurial spirit considering then-NCAA laws restricted college athletes from being compensated.

However, after navigating COVID-19 with the rest of us, Clapper and college athletes around the country finally got the opportunity to profit on their name, image and likeness – just like the rest of us.

Florida Gators gymnast Leah Clapper performs on the beam during the match against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center in Gainesville, FL on Sunday, January 16, 2022. The Gators beat the Crimson Tide 197.000 to 196.925.

Ncaa Gymnastics Alabama At Florida

“I always thought it would be so cool if athletes also had the chance to, you know, be entrepreneurs, create online businesses and make money from social media,” said Clapper. “And so when I heard that NIL was coming, I was really pumped up.”

But like many female athletes, Clapper wasn’t sure NIL deals would come her way. And the ones that did, she knew she’d have to work for.

For Clapper, this meant building a following on social media, an area she admits wasn’t her favorite pre-legislation, but she knew would be the breeding ground for any NIL opportunity.

“I thought it was a distraction from enjoying your regular life,” she said.

Then Clapper came to UF, where her social media presence grew rapidly.

Anytime the official Instagram account of the Gators gymnastics team would post something and tag Clapper, she’d see her following jump. Before long, Clapper had grown her previously miniscule audience into a community of gymnastics fans.

And as Clapper’s following count changed, so did her view on social media.

“I began to see it in a much more positive light,” she said. “Social media allows you to get messages out into the world to an unlimited audience really quickly.”

And just like that, paired with her pursuit of an advertising degree, Clapper’s entrepreneurial spirit returned.

Gators gymnasts serve as a reality check in NIL space

For Clapper and her teammates, making a buck isn’t as easy as one might think.

It certainly isn’t as easy as signing the dotted line of a national letter of intent and securing $13 million out of high school.

Apr 16, 2021; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; LSU Tigers freshman gymnast Olivia Dunne performs on the uneven bars during the 2021 NCAA Women Gymnastics Championships at Dickies Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Even in gymnastics, outliers like LSU’s Olivia Dunne, who the Gators visit on Friday night, exist.

Dunne, who has a combined 10.6 million followers between Instagram and TikTok, has made the most money in NIL deals among female college athletes and ranks as the No. 6 earner across all college athletes with an On3 valuation of $3.3 million.

Dunne’s online presence has undoubtedly impacted her NIL earning potential. But last month, Dunne and the Tigers learned it comes with a price.

Following LSU’s season opener at Utah on Jan. 6, fans of Dunne disrupted the meet and lined the outside of the arena chanting, “Livvy! Livvy! We want her!”

The incident led to LSU increasing security efforts at all gymnastics events.

“I think she’s definitely brought a lot more representation to a normally under-represented sport,” Florida gymnastics fifth-year senior Savannah Schoenherr said of Dunne. “It does really well for NIL in general because it adds more credibility to the sport of gymnastics and also to female athletes.”

But it’s situations like Dunne’s that prove the system doesn’t run on meritocracy.

While Dunne reaps the benefits of mega deals with brands such as American Eagle, Forever 21 and Vuori, Florida gymnastics’ Trinity Thomas, who was crowned the all-around national champion last season, is still waiting for her big break.

Thomas has done smaller deals with Tropical Smoothie Café, Honey Stinger and Amazon, among others. Yet none have launched her anywhere near the same valuation as Dunne.

On3, using the same analytics that values Dunne at $3.3 million, values Thomas, who needs just five more perfect 10s to break the NCAA record, at $110,000.

No one would blame Thomas and other athletes if such blockbuster deals frustrated them.

But at least for Clapper, that’s far from the case.

“Ninety nine percent of college athletes don’t have the platform that Livvy has or star quarterbacks may have,” Clapper said. “But there’s still an opportunity to take advantage of NIL in something that you’re interested in.”

Clapper found her niche in “Balance Palace,” a gymnastics-themed board game she launched with her former coach, Claudia Kretschmer.

“I was just able to leverage my status as a Gator gymnast and market this product,” said Clapper. “We used other marketing tactics such as email marketing and emailing gyms around the country and we’re able to get a ton of sales from that … That was a really rewarding experience.

“The moral of the story is, I think anybody can build their brand and be successful in NIL if they want to.”

With the help of Clapper, other Gators gymnasts have found their way into the NIL space, including Schoenherr.

It's now or never for most female college athletes

Schoenherr, who suffered a broken foot after a non-gymnastics-related incident in January, hasn’t been able to compete alongside her teammates this season.

However, like many female college athletes, Schoenherr recognizes the fact that her platform might not be any bigger than it is right now, meaning she’s still looking to cash in on any NIL opportunities possible.

One day before her injury, Schoenherr announced the inaugural Charms For Change Initiative, which highlighted four causes that aligned with her: supporting the LGBTQ+ community, mental health awareness, eating disorder awareness and racial justice.

“Doing NIL, I think it’s really important doing things that align with my brand and align with my values as well,” Schoenherr said. “I have made it a point not to just accept any deal that comes my way, but to really only accept things that are mutually beneficial to the brand and for me.”

Through the initiative, which is in partnership with the Little Words Project bracelet brand, Schoenherr has a line of four bracelets representing each cause with a portion of the proceeds being donated to respective charities.

Meanwhile, the money that comes back to Schoenherr’s pocket? It makes a difference.

“We’re just average kids going to school and pursuing an education. We have to pay rent, we have to buy groceries,” said Schoenherr. “Now, with NIL earnings, I’m able to save more.

“I also really enjoy gift-giving. I love giving back and having that opportunity to give to others like my parents … just being able to buy them Christmas presents and being able to spoil them in a way, just like they spoiled me for the past 22 years, it’s something I wouldn’t be able to do without NIL.”

When the second-ranked Gators gymnastics team heads to the Maravich Center on LSU’s campus Friday night, not only will it showcase two top-10 college gymnastics programs, but it will also showcase the NCAA’s NIL legislation working as it should.

I’m sure I’ll catch flak for just being a female sportswriter sticking my neck out for women’s sports, but maybe, just maybe, there are lessons to be learned from the group of young women who will be taking over ESPN2 Friday night at 9.