In the gymnastics community Sunisa Lee is the athlete everyone thinks about when Auburn University is discussed. But I want to start this article by talking about the most famous athlete Auburn has produced in the past few decades, the football player Cam Newton.
The first time I ever heard of Cam Newton came during the Summer of 2010. At the time, Cam Newton was a former backup at Florida who had transferred out, and there really wasn’t much reason to give him serious consideration outside of just another routine roster change. But on all the college football forums, Auburn fans were adamant that this was a name everyone should remember. And that in only a few months’ time, he would be one of the most famous athletes in American sports.
In the end that prophecy came true.
Cam Newton would become Auburn’s first Heisman Trophy winner since 1985, and led Auburn to its first National Championship since 1957. His 2010 season would go down as one of the most memorable in college football history. But due to his unconventional career trajectory where Newton’s first three years were spent in obscurity before he arrived at Auburn, his reputation for being one of the most athletically gifted players the sport had ever seen was based entirely on word of mouth and the college football insiders insisting his arrival at Auburn was anything but routine.
Cam Newton-2010 reminds me so much of Nadia Comaneci in 1973 and 1974 when she herself was an obscure figure to the larger sports community, but the superfans and gymnastics insiders seemed to have the inside scoop of what was to come in later years. If Cam Newton has parallels to a young Nadia Comaneci, he is the polar opposite of Sunisa Lee.
Cam Newton came to Auburn as an obscure sports figure with the expectation of future greatness, but when Sunisa Lee came to Auburn she was already a household name. Sunisa Lee belongs to one of the very few Olympic sports where athletes obtain widescale popularity in their high school years. And among those sports, the only one that receives strong media coverage at both the Olympic and NCAA level.
For elite-level athletes of women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) looking to transition to the NCAA ranks, they belong to a one-of-a-kind situation where they enter a popular NCAA league having already established their fame. When Cam Newton arrived at Auburn, he used the vast resources of Auburn’s fanbase and brand to garner a large following for himself. That has not been Sunisa’s experience at Auburn.
Before she competed in even a single NCAA competition, Sunisa Lee had already won the title of Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year. Sunisa was also a competitor on Dancing With the Stars, the most prestigious television show in the “celebrity guest competition” genre. Before Sunisa Lee had saluted her first NCAA judge, she had already reached the pinnacle of gymnastics fame.
For Cam Newton, Auburn served as the launching point which propelled him to future greatness. If Auburn football made Cam Newton famous, for Sunisa Lee the reverse is true. She is making Auburn gymnastics famous.
The combination of NCAA Gymnastics and highly acclaimed elite level gymnasts who can now wield the full power of their brands due to NIL has created a situation that is unprecedented elsewhere in the college sports world. In women’s gymnastics, NCAA student-athletes are arguably more high-profile, more famous, and have a larger following than the very college programs they compete for.
Sunisa Lee not only has a larger social media following on Instagram than Auburn Gymnastics, but at 1.7 million followers, Sunisa Lee has more Instagram followers than the next 20 largest women’s gymnastics programs combined (1.4 Million). To put that in perspective, the largest NCAA football programs, the most valuable sports teams in college sport typically achieve “only” 500K followers, with the two largest being at 900K and 1.1 million respectively.
Sunisa Lee is by no means an outlier in this regard. LSU Gymnastics has achieved a similar benefit thanks to Olivia Dunne, who leveraged her WAG career to grow one of the largest social media followings of any athlete who is currently active in the NCAA ranks. Dunne currently sits at 1.6 million followers on Instagram, which is sort of an afterthought compared to the 5.1 million followers she has on TikTok.
Even without achieving Olympic success Olivia Dunne has proven more than capable of growing LSU’s base of support. LSU Gymnastics currently has the second largest social media following amongst all women’s gymnastics programs with Olivia being a key reason for that growth. And like Sunisa Lee, Olivia Dunne achieved the bulk of her fame prior to entering the NCAA ranks.
Note: If it appears unimpressive that LSU has “only” the 2nd largest social media following amongst NCAA programs, it is because UCLA occupies the #1 spot and has as many Instagram followers as the #2, #3, #4, and #5 largest NCAA gymnastics programs combined thanks to the lasting success of Katelyn Ohashi. It is a further example of how individual superstars often empower the programs they represent.
If it sounds audacious to compare the fame of an NCAA gymnast to a Blue Blood football program with their massive fanbases, Olivia Dunne makes that comparison somewhat justified. LSU has recognized the value of Olivia Dunne and has emphasized her in their multi-sport brand platforms, marketing, and recruiting pitches. As LSU sees it, to win over the next highly acclaimed football or basketball recruit, they need to demonstrate that LSU is a place where NCAA athletes can maximize their earning potential in the form of NIL deals.
And what better way to do that than pointing to the success of LSU’s very own Olivia Dunne who has received massive attention not just for having a large social media base, but being one of the leading gymnasts in the wave of NIL deals overtaking NCAA sports. It would be accurate to say the next great LSU football team will be built with help from Olivia Dunne.
In a recent interview with Charles Barkley, one of the most famous sports figures Auburn athletics has ever produced, he expressed shock and bewilderment over Sunisa’s fame. As Barkley correctly pointed out, it wasn’t until he was past the halfway point in his college career before he achieved significant fame for himself. Sunisa Lee accomplished widespread fame at a far younger age, in her freshman year, and before she had even produced a signature NCAA win.
Even the very existence of this interview is an example of the unusual trend impacting NCAA women’s gymnastics. The interview between Charles and Sunisa occurred on an NBA themed show, and published to its YouTube channel with over one million subscribers. Through her appearance on Barkley’s show, Sunisa was promoting NCAA gymnasts and Auburn University to a platform geared towards sports fans of a different gender (Male vs. Female), a different level of play (Professional vs NCAA), and a different family of sports (Olympic vs. Four Major Leagues).
In the process, Sunisa Lee was not only socializing with a fellow Auburn legend and growing her platform, she was helping to grow Auburn gymnastics as well.
It is a situation that is simply unparalleled elsewhere in the college ranks. When future football and basketball stars arrive as freshmen to a major NCAA program, despite all the millions of dollars they are expected to make in their future NFL or NBA careers, they are still unestablished athletes who need the tools/resources of a major NCAA program to jumpstart their careers. In the end, it was an NCAA program offering them their big break and the opportunity to go on to become a famous NBA or NFL superstar.
But in women’s gymnastics it is the other way around. It is the athletes themselves who are providing various NCAA programs with the opportunity to empower themselves. The arrival of Sunisa Lee at Auburn and Jade Carey at Oregon State instantly propelled two mid-level programs to the top of the NCAA gymnastics echelon. Having a pair of Olympic gold medalists in their lineup fresh of their recent success made these two programs instantly relevant. Their attendance swelled and so did media coverage at both the local and national level.
Olivia Dunne, Sunisa Lee, and Jade Carey have power that is unusual, if not completely unprecedented in NCAA sports. They are truly larger than the programs they represent and whereas Cam Newton needed a strong SEC football program to launch himself to future NFL stardom, for Dunne, Lee, and Carey the stardom was already a given. These three gymnasts would have achieved success anywhere they went and the media hoopla would have followed regardless of what program they chose to attend. Oregon State, Auburn, and LSU were simply the programs lucky enough to win the lottery by getting one of these superstar gymnasts.
NCAA women’s gymnastics is fundamentally different from most NCAA sports where it is usually the program empowering the athletes by giving said athletes the opportunity to grow a large following for themselves. But as the careers of Sunisa Lee, Jade Carey, and Olivia Dunne demonstrate, it is the superstar gymnasts who are bringing their large following to the NCAA and giving college programs an opportunity to grow a large following of their own.