'A Whole Different Audience': College Athletes Are Now Online Influencers, Too
Why this matters
Name, image and likeness freedoms in college sport have helped turn athletes into successful online influencers, an identity that often exists separate and apart from their athletic endeavors.
To perhaps best understand why Clemson men’s basketball starting guard Brevin Galloway became one of the country's most successful college athletes turned social media influencers — with more than 120,000 followers on TikTok and more than 72,000 followers on Instagram — look no further than his social media stories from Thursday, Jan. 26.
Clemson had released an official statement saying that Galloway would not be playing that weekend due to “abdominal pain.” But Galloway, who credits his authenticity as a major factor for the growth of his online following, offered a more vivid, and, uhh, detailed description of his injuries on his Instagram (and TikTok) feeds.
“So this morning I went to lift,” Galloway says to start the video, as he laid shirtless on a hospital bed. “I came back; I took a nap. I woke up from my nap, and my balls and my nut sack were exploded.” (Slight pause; the videographer laughs in the background.) “Now, I go to the doctor. I have surgery three hours later. My balls are reduced to their normal size.” Galloway pauses again and smiles. “I don’t know what happened to my balls. I guess they were trying to be like basketballs.”
His very open and detailed Instagram recounting of the injury went viral, making headlines from Twitter to USA Today.
For Galloway, it was another adventurous day of not holding back with his online following. “I am an authentic person who wants to share his life with the world,” Galloway says. He’s also a bit of a comedian. Those qualities help explain how he and numerous other college student-athletes nationwide have successfully monetized their social media followings and become influencers (though, it should be noted, Galloway says he doesn’t like that term).
Thanks to the NCAA’s rule change in 2021, student-athletes can now make money off their name, image, and likeness (NIL), allowing them to monetize their online followings toward contracts worth as much as seven figures. But what are the keys to successful college-athlete influence? After all, there are hundreds of thousands of student-athletes nationwide, but only a fraction of that population have effectively used their social media accounts to draw paychecks from brand, marketing, or appearance deals.
Sharing graphic surgical stories from a hospital bed is one option, but Galloway and others have figured out several other approaches to monetizing their social media accounts, regardless of how they perform on the court, track, or field.
Galloway created his Instagram account in seventh grade. His TikTok followed in high school. Initially, he created funny videos and skits, showing off his gregarious and comedic sides. He eventually began posting basketball highlight clips and reels. Soon, he says, he had two types of followers: those who wanted to see his comedy and those who wanted to watch his on-court skills.
Galloway, an Anderson, S.C., native, began his collegiate basketball career in 2017 at the College of Charleston. The 25-year-old steadily grew his social media following, and his numbers really started to tick up last season, while he was playing for Boston College in his fifth year of eligibility. Several of his TikTok videos hit 1 million views, and his TikTok following grew past 60,000.
Galloway had torn an anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, in mid-December of 2020, at the start of his senior season at College of Charleston. As he worked toward recovering, Galloway shared his personal struggles in videos on his accounts, talking about depression, anxiety, and the mental health challenges he dealt with while working to rehab the injury.
“A lot of people go through stuff, and I reached a whole different audience,” Galloway says. He realized that by sharing his story – his flaws, his hard days – fans and followers looked at him differently. They didn’t see only a basketball player or only a happy-go-lucky comedian. They saw a multifaceted person pushing through adversity.
Related: How College Athletes Can Make NIL Deals That Set Them Up Now and In the Future
After learning in April 2022 that he’d have another year of eligibility due to injuries earlier in his career, Galloway transferred to Clemson for a seventh and final collegiate basketball season, during which his following has surpassed six figures on TikTok. His video post on Oct. 17, 2022, showing his proposal to his long-time girlfriend (who is often featured in his videos), garnered more than 135,000 views. And his NIL opportunities grew, including deals with Amazon and Insomnia Cookies.
Personal storytelling has been an effective tool for Emily Cole as well. The Duke University track and field athlete has become a very successful online influencer, and she has capitalized on numerous marketing deals as a result.
Like Galloway, Cole started posting Instagram stories in high school. She shared details of her long runs, her stats, her post-run meals. She added TikTok during her freshman year at Duke and used the app to continue sharing sports nutrition- and wellness-related content.
“Going to bed at 9 p.m. – I knew that wasn’t normal [for a college student], and I was proud of that,” Cole says. “You have to be willing to share things that you do differently and not feel insecure.”
During her sophomore year at Duke, she was diagnosed with celiac disease. In high school, Cole fell into a two-day coma due to hyponatremia, a condition in which the body has dangerously low sodium levels. At the time, she says, she was cooking her own food and didn’t even know what electrolytes were. “I almost died because of it,” Cole says of her health scare, which inspired her, along with her celiac diagnosis, to write her first book. "The Player’s Plate: An Unorthodox Guide to Sports Nutrition," which was published in November 2022, teaches the fundamentals of how to eat well and optimize recovery with food while also allowing yourself the foods you love, according to Cole.
Cole had around 10,000 Instagram followers when she entered Duke as a freshman. That number rose significantly in December 2021, after she made a TikTok post about needing a date to her formal that went viral.
Mitchell Pehlke, a lacrosse player at Ohio State University, responded on social media. Then Cole responded to Pehlke, and the two had their first conversation on FaceTime, posting it to their social media accounts. Soon, more than 50,000 viewers were following their formal journey on TikTok (for Cole), YouTube (where Pehlke also posted) and Instagram (where both posted).
Cole says that documenting their experience, including a follow-up trip to New York City together and a guest appearance on a Barstool Sports podcast, bumped her TikTok followers from 50,000 to 90,000 and her Instagram following from 13,000 to 20,000.
She followed that wave of viral fame with a successful track season, and by season’s end, her TikTok following was over 105,000. Today, it’s more than 182,200, and her Instagram is 106,000.
Cole also landed bigger NIL deals after her date with Pehlke. Previously, Cole says she had reached out to companies about working with them in the health and nutrition space. Afterward, companies like Olé deodorant and Lay’s potato chips began reaching out to her with deals worth thousands of dollars each.
Still, Cole didn’t want to be only known as “the formal girl.” She began working with Michael Raymond of Raymond Representation on NIL deals, which has led to contracts with Dick’s Sporting Goods, Adidas, and Therabody.
“It’s really when the athlete starts to pop off,” Raymond says of strategic deal timing. “It’s the agent’s job to find the athlete early or you find them at the right time. It’s all about timing.”
Raymond started his agency in 2021, while he was a full-time law school student at the University of Miami. He wanted to be a professional basketball agent. However, once he began working with a few student-athletes, he saw opportunity in NIL.
By Raymond’s third year in law school, his client roster had grown and included several National Basketball Association players. By his graduation day, Raymond had built a seven-figure company in the span of two years.
Today, he and his employees have specific criteria when choosing which athletes to work with. They sign only “a handful” of athletes each year, Raymond says, across all sports.
Some, Raymond says, are elite talents who are bound for professional sports. Others, Raymond says, are “the Emily Coles of the world. She may or may not be in the Olympics, but she’s built an incredible brand that’s one of one. She has an unbelievable TikTok and Instagram presence; she knows how to make really high-quality content.”
She also knows how to capitalize on moments and how much effort it takes. “I’m grateful that companies are realizing the potential of investing in social media and influencers in addition to their traditional marketing methods,” Cole says, while also noting that maintaining her brand places significant demands on her time in addition to her hard work in athletics and academics as a full-time student. “Managing my social media pages and promotion for my book while being a student-athlete is like working three full-time jobs,” Cole says. “It’s taken a lot of trial and error figuring out how to be the most efficient with my time.” Still, she says she is “super grateful” for the opportunities, which also include empowering the next generation of female athletes to believe in their own potential. After graduating, she hopes to pursue professional running alongside her influencing career – and to find success in both, concurrently.
Because of the legalization of NIL, athlete-influencing is starting even younger. Raymond, who also works with Galloway, mentioned several high school athletes whose social media and athletic potential have grown enough that they are landing NIL deals. One is Jaxen Wright, a high school wrestler in Oklahoma who has surpassed 448,000 TikTok followers.
“I think the social media influencer space will be a billion-dollar industry,” Raymond says.
Galloway, too, knows how to seize a moment. After the aforementioned injury, he said, his deal opportunities “skyrocketed” (while he wasn’t giving specifics just then, think jockstraps and underwear).
Raymond says that successful college-athlete influencers fall into three categories: A, B, and C. A is the influencer athlete who understands the market and what viewers want to see; B is the athlete who has a massive following and is an elite athlete with professional potential in his or her sport; and C is both – “the superstar athlete who gets it and has a big personality and is very marketable – those are the superstars,” Raymond says.
Jaxon Curtis works at Vantage Management Group. He helps college athletes with brand and marketing deals, everything from contracts to social media posting to in-person activations. When it comes to being a successful college-athlete influencer, Curtis says that being an elite athlete doesn’t necessarily equate to brand success.
Curtis points out that the starting quarterback can often get a local deal easily, but building a good brand online is about an engaged audience. “I tell the athletes that I work with, your social media is super important because it’s what everyone looks at before they get to know you,” Curtis says. “It’s their first impression of you. Brands will just miss you if you don’t put time into that.”
And while different brands have different goals and each state has different NIL laws, student-athletes can capitalize regardless. Curtis encourages his clients to post both sports and non-sports-related content. “Brands want to see, ‘Does he like music?’ And, ‘He’s a star player on a team; this product could make a great partnership with this player.’ Look for ways to showcase your hobbies; show a little background of who you are as a person.”
Cole will often write long captions sharing her mood that day, whether it’s a makeup-free, sweaty post-practice video or a TikTok when she’s all dressed up and going out somewhere. Regardless of the circumstance, she feels comfortable being herself in the influencing space. “The biggest thing is letting your audience get to know you,” Cole says.
When others reach out to her about influencing, Cole reminds them that their unique personality traits are what can set them apart. She corresponded with a DJ from the Netherlands who messaged her about growing her online following. The DJ, in describing her varied interests, said to Cole, “I have too many niches,” and Cole responded, “That’s what’s awesome — you have so many things that make you unique.”
A self-described “goofball,” Galloway shares videos ranging from comedic to emotional and heartfelt. “When you are building your brand, you need something that people will know you for,” Galloway says. Whatever the setting or the mood, he strives to show who he truly is in that moment. He didn’t try to hide his injuries and lengthy recoveries, and he doesn’t shy away from posting when he is having difficult days.
Perhaps most importantly, in a market where cynics may assume that self-sold brands are being inauthentic for the sake of marketing revenue, successful influencers like Galloway and Cole say they have built their online following by leaning into exactly who they are that day, week, month, and even year.
“People love stories and they love comeback stories,” Galloway says. “I tore my ACL, my hamstring; I barely played last year. This year, I’m on a March Madness team. I overcame a lot of hardships in my life. I was telling my story even when I was down; now that I’m successful, it makes the story even sweeter.”
What does the playbook look like for successful influencers? Here are three of the main tenets of successful college-athlete influencing, according to Galloway, Cole, Curtis, and Raymond:
“I typically post on my stories every day,” Galloway says. “If we win the game, I’m posting; if not, I don’t want to seem like there’s all social media. Obviously there’s a basketball side of my life, and I don’t want to post like everything is great if we just lost by 20.”
“If it’s been 5-7 days and I haven’t posted on Instagram, I start to get anxious,” Cole says. “I feel like, ‘I’m not doing my job right now.’ I don’t want to tell myself I have to post every day because I never want it to feel forced. I’m someone who likes to share my life a lot, which probably comes from being the youngest child [Cole has two older sisters.] I’ve gone through phases where I didn’t want to put out content. I don’t want to get burnt out creating content. It comes naturally to me, though, and I’m grateful for that.”
“We have that conversation with them pretty early,” Raymond says of consistency with his clients. “You have to post 3-5 times a week, and you gotta care about what you’re posting.” Raymond advises his clients to “have your own pillars of what you want to do. Come up with three different pillars of what you can post – one can be athletic stuff, one could be family and friends, one could be inspiration and brands.”
“I advise college athletes to typically focus on 1-2 platforms, posting content with purpose and providing value on a regular basis,” Curtis wrote in an email. “Use the content the school gives you after a game, practice, or media day. Don’t find excuses not to post; find excuses to post and connect with your audience. The athlete will stay more relevant the more they are active on social media.”
“I know I’m bigger than a basketball player,” Galloway says. “I feel like my purpose in life is to tell my story and to help others. I use basketball and social media to help others. I’m a happy guy who wants to live life and have fun. I’m also a storyteller/motivational speaker. I’m going to a middle school in two weeks to do my first real speech.”
“Something that I’ve really been very intentional about through my whole journey is sharing the bad days,” Cole added. “I think that’s gone a long way to helping, especially with these younger athletes connecting with me. Running is especially a sport where it’s pretty brutal. Whenever you follow a pro athlete who PRs in every race and runs a 4:20 mile, it’s really unrelatable. So I’ve really made an effort. I share the media days where I’m all dressed up, but if I have a race and it goes badly, I’m going to share about that, too.”
Successful college-athlete influencers “connect with their audience and understand the type of personality they have on the platform,” Curtis wrote. “For example, some players choose to be entertaining, and the majority of their content has their audience laughing. Some players have a more serious tone and make a concerted effort to show their following how hard they work and how much they appreciate their teammates.
“Every student-athlete should develop their own voice and personality for the content they post, or a brand may be confused on who they are. Your followers, brands, people want to know more about you! What makes you tick, your daily routine, things you enjoy doing. People want to get to know interesting people!”
“You have to be all-in with NIL,” Raymond says. “You need to really want to do it and grow it and build and work with brands. A lot of athletes, just because they have a little social media following or they’re good at a sport, it’s not enough. A lot of brands want to see athletes who really care and are all-in.”
“Brands want to work with student-athletes who are interesting,” Curtis wrote. “Student athletes need to think outside of the box. When partnering with a brand, it’s not just about doing a sponsored post on Instagram with a photo post. I’ve seen athletes showcase their video editing skills and develop good content for a campaign with working a brand. Athletes have tailored an NIL deal to their major or one of their classes that they love. In-person activations are also really underrated and can provide tons of value to the brand.”
“I make sure to take more pride in the pictures in terms of the quality of everything,” Galloway says. “TikToks are high quality, story posts, you want people to be attracted to your page and brand. I want them to be like, ‘Wow, his pictures are beautiful. He puts effort in.’”
“I kick myself sometimes whenever I create more TikToks where I’m just speaking along to a sound,” Cole says. “If I don’t put enough content where I am talking to the camera, that’s the biggest follower growth. Talking to the camera is awkward in general. A lot of the videos [I have watched] on TikTok that teach you how to create a brand, they say, ‘Pretend you’re talking to your best friend. Or your sister or mom.’ That will help you get past that awkwardness.”
NIL & the Modern College Athlete
Nearly two years into the NIL era of American college sports, athletes have more financial freedom, while the industry is still in disarray.
We explore how different stakeholders, from athletic programs to universities to fans and boosters, can play a part in improving the system and the conditions of college athletes.