This story originally appeared in the August issue of Hail Varsity, AKA “the volleyball issue.” Never miss an issue of the magazine with a subscription to Hail Varsity.
(Editor’s note: The numbers presented in this story are likely to have changed ever so slightly since it originally ran in the magazine. Lexi Sun, for example, now has 53,000 followers on Instagram.)
Lexi Sun has just shy of 50,000 Instagram followers. That’s nearly the population of Grand Island (51,478) and nearly double the number of followers that Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez has on Instagram. The junior outside hitter averages more than 10,000 likes per photo on the social platform, nearly 10 times the number expected based on her follower count and Instagram’s algorithm—Instagram expects between 3-to-6% of a person’s followers to like their photos on average.
Long story short: Lexi Sun has a powerful social presence.
“First of all, Lexi Sun is the Instagram guru,” junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins joked.
But she isn’t the only “Instagram guru” on the team. Of the 16 players on Nebraska volleyball’s 2019 roster, none has fewer than 2,000 followers on Instagram. The women had a collective 206,881 followers—alongside the Huskers’ team account—at the time of publishing. That’s almost 100,000 more followers than the Team USA women’s volleyball account.
Let’s go beyond that and compare Nebraska volleyball to another top program: Texas. The Longhorns’ team account boasts an impressive 83,600 followers on Instagram. Nebraska has 70,500. It would be easy to assume that Texas’ influence surpasses the Huskers’ if you stopped right there, but let’s look at the power of the individuals.
The 13 women of the Texas volleyball team have a combined 64,286 followers.
Nebraska has 136,462. However, the Huskers have 16 players on its 2019 roster, so we must go beyond just the combined numbers to show true effect. If we average the followers across the roster, Texas boasts approximately 4,945 followers per player. Nebraska nearly doubles that with approximately 8,524 followers per player.
Stanford—the 2018 national champion—has 63,900 followers on its team account. As for the individuals on the team, they combine for 72,411 followers. That averages to approximately 4,259 followers per individual on the team.
While Nebraska’s team Instagram account is on par with many of its fellow powerhouse programs, the women that make up the team are dominating individually. Sun has the most of anyone on the team, but she’s not alone. Stivrins sits at 19,000 followers. Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames is at 12,100. Junior outside hitter Jazz Sweet has 13,100. Even freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles has over 6,000 followers and her Nebraska career has hardly begun.
The Nebraska volleyball team is powerful on the court. They’re powerful in their influence off the court, too.
Kenzie Maloney’s collegiate career ended Dec. 15, 2018. In the month that followed, the former Nebraska libero put her 27,200 Instagram followers to use. She started promoting swimsuits, teeth whitening systems and Lululemon, something she could not have done as a student-athlete. Maloney didn’t go pro in volleyball—she accepted an opportunity with Hudl in Lincoln that started in July—but she clearly understands the value of her brand.
It wasn’t always that way for Maloney. She was quiet when she first arrived at Nebraska. So much so, Coach John Cook recalls the team calling her “Pippy” because “she was a pipsqueak and would never talk,” he said. Maloney remembers looking at her teammates’ social media accounts as a freshman and wondering how they’d all amassed such a following. She couldn’t fathom that many people wanting to follow her.
And then she started to play. Maloney would have 200 or more new followers after every game she appeared in. By the time the Huskers reached the Final Four during Maloney’s freshman season in 2015, her account was growing by more than 2,000 followers at a time. As her following grew, so did Maloney’s voice.
“Now look where she is,” Cook said. “She’s all over social media, she’s got a job, she speaks. Her and Mikaela (Foecke) do things like go out and do speaking engagements, autograph things. That’s what this program does and we have a lot of pride in that.”
Stivrins has also seen her own personal brand grow quickly at Nebraska. She estimates that she had fewer than 1,000 followers when she joined the Huskers in 2016. After Nebraska won a national title in 2017, she saw a small bump—maybe around a few thousand—in her follower count. It was the 2018 season that saw the biggest increase for Stivrins, with almost 14,000 new fans following the Scottsdale, Arizona, native.
“To see how much the fans care and to get messages from little girls saying, ‘You’re my idol’ and that they love watching us play is really cool,” Stivrins said. “We love that support. And personally, I never thought that was possible but being in this situation, it’s cool and I really appreciate everyone.”
That brand is especially important for women athletes too, whether they go pro or not. There’s a pay gap between men’s and women’s sports. On a list of the top-20, highest-paid tennis players in the world, three men rank higher than Serena Williams. She has a net worth of nearly $89 million, while Rafael Nadal ($107 million), Roger Federer ($124 million) and Novak Djokovic ($131 million) all rank higher. A study on the prize money paid to the top-100 earners on the WTA and ATP Tours shows that women tennis professionals make 80 cents on each dollar to the men.
Media coverage is a big reason for the gap between the pay of men and women athletes.
According to a 2010 study by the USC Center for Feminist Research, only 1.4% of ESPN SportsCenter’s coverage and 1.6% of three Los Angeles TV networks’ coverage were of women’s sports. But it’s not just about coverage. If it were, you could reasonably expect women to receive around 1.5% of all sports sponsorships. Instead, women’s sports received just 0.4% of all sports sponsorships between 2011 and 2013, per WomenInSport.org, highlighting that it’s not just the coverage limiting the sponsorship opportunities.
The landscape is starting to change. Women sports are gaining traction and fans internationally— Nielsen recently reported that 84% of sports fans have an interest in women’s sports, with 51% being men—which is resulting in better sponsorships of both the teams and individuals. It’s still a major work in progress though. USC conducted that same study of the coverage surrounding women’s sports in 2015, and SportsCenter had only grown half a percent in five years to 2%. That historic lack of exposure for women’s sports has meant women athletes have had
to find non-traditional paths to sponsorship.
Kelly Hunter is one of the most decorated players in Nebraska volleyball history. She
was a first-team All-American, Big Ten Setter of the Year and co-Most Outstanding Player at the NCAA Championship in 2017. She was also a three-time captain at Nebraska and played professionally last season with Beylikduzu in Turkey. Hunter has now returned to Nebraska as a graduate assistant for the 2019 season.
Hunter has just under 7,500 followers on Instagram and just under 4,000 on Twitter. She’s used her Instagram to promote brands such as Quest Nutrition and her Twitter to promote her personal blog. Hunter has blogged about her daily life, the food in Turkey and the difference between collegiate and professional volleyball. Hunter quickly saw— for herself and for other women athletes—the value social media can play.
“I think it’s really, really important because you just look on TV and the sports you see,” Hunter said. “It’s men’s basketball, baseball, football. You don’t see a lot of women’s sports, so I think that’s a reason why women are so successful (on social media) because people are curious. They want to know what our lives are like and what we’re doing and how that is. I think that’s why women are successful in that way. Just because you don’t really see a lot of them on TV, so it’s like, ‘OK, how am I going to follow them? How am I going to know what they’re up to?’ Well, Instagram, Twitter, if they have a blog or anything like that. I think that’s why it’s so important for women specifically.”
That influence can pay off in other ways, too. For some former Nebraska volleyball players, it’s even resulted in starting and owning businesses. That swimsuit Maloney helped promote after her collegiate career ended? It came from Birdie Bikini, owned by former Husker Tiani Reeves. With more than 18,000 followers on Instagram, Reeves took her influence and turned it into her own line of sustainable swimwear. The brand launched in January 2019 and has already grown to more than 1,700 followers thanks to the support of influencers like Maloney.
One billion people use Instagram every month. Of that, 52 percent are women and 64 percent are between the ages of 18-29. With more and more users joining the platform every day, Instagram has become a hot spot for influencer marketing. Individuals—who are often women—share content with their audiences on behalf of brands, products, you name it. The influencers have established credibility with their audiences, and that credibility has proven valuable to brands globally. More and more brands have opted to work with influencers due to the influencer’s reach and engagement, as well as the relatively low cost in comparison to traditional media.
Athletes, in some way, have always been influencers. They’re role models and
spokespeople for their teams and organizations. Social media has simply amplified that. In the case of women, social media—and specifically Instagram—have provided opportunities to use their influence even when lucrative contracts and endorsement deals aren’t there.
And that approach is shifting how brands see women athletes. While there are plenty of discussions to be had about why women athletes are not paid equally to men, this is not that discussion. This is about how women are carrying the torch in creating significant change for sponsorship opportunities within their industry, and they’re primarily doing it online.
Kerri Walsh Jennings is a professional beach volleyball player who has won three Olympic gold medals, one Olympic bronze medal and is currently working toward a bid for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. She’s a dominant force in her sport, but even she realizes her sport needs revitalization. She launched p1440 in 2018, a digital platform built around beach volleyball. And while p1440 was not created nor designed solely for women, there’s something striking about the Instagram account built for it. Of the 559 posts the account has shared to its 19,600 followers, a majority are focused on women.
“There has been no better time in the history of our planet to be a woman and to be an innovator and a world shaker,” Walsh Jennings wrote on Instagram in May.
Nebraska volleyball is a powerful program. The Huskers have won five national titles, with the most recent coming in 2017. Terry Pettit built Nebraska into a national powerhouse in volleyball during his 23-year tenure from 1977-1999. When Pettit retired in 2000, Cook took over and never let his foot off the gas. He’s been honored with 10 coach-of-the- year awards and inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame. The accolades are nice, but it’s always been about more than that for Cook. It’s been about the work ethic, the heart of his players and always “dreaming big.”
“I just think our whole package—we call it training the complete athlete—it incorporates everything,” Cook said. “We just don’t look at, ‘OK, you’re a volleyball player for two- and-a-half hours a day, see you later.’ This is a great thing about Nebraska and how we’ve been able to run this program. It’s all those things that, as we say, train the complete athlete. It’s social to academics to you dreaming big about your career and doing things.
“Then I think when you perform in front of this environment, you learn how to get over nerves, and you get to build confidence. They have confidence because it’s not easy to come out here and do this every day.”
That confidence and work ethic has extended beyond the court. Cook’s players continue to hustle when their playing days at Nebraska are done, whether they go professional in the sport or not. Former Nebraska setter Brooke Smith now works for Eleat Sports Nutrition, a company focused on virtual nutrition counseling to professional athletes across the country. Smith is also using her nearly 7,000 followers on Instagram to promote Lululemon and skincare products. She doesn’t have the largest following—she spent her career mostly as a backup setter at both Nebraska and Kansas State—but her audience is engaged. And even better, she puts it to use. A photo from Smith can earn around 1,200 likes, far more than the Instagram algorithm suggests she should receive based on her follower count.
Or, outside hitter Kelsey Robinson. She’s a member of Team USA, an Olympic bronze medalist and a world champion with her professional team. She’s also a member of the Adidas family, which she joined in early June. It’s hard not to think Adidas didn’t see Robinson’s social influence and want to put their brand behind that power. She has 113,000 followers on Instagram and she receives up to 20,000 likes per photo she posts.
Social media—and specifically Instagram—have changed the game for women athletes around the world. It’s provided a revenue stream that wasn’t available 20 years ago, and women are taking full advantage. Whether they end up playing professionally or not, they’ve tapped into a new world of endorsement deals and opportunities.
It’s hard to definitively say exactly why—or how—Nebraska has found itself at the forefront of this. Yet, the Huskers have. In talking with those around the program, it likely has something to do with the type of player Cook recruits to his program. When he talks about the talent of the women he recruits, he also mentions character. That character is what Cook wants people to notice first and foremost with his teams.
“I think when people come here—and this was my goal when I very first started (as a coach)—is they see our team the first time and just go, ‘I want to be on that court with them,’” Cook said. “Are we playing with passion and energy and, as we say, ‘With each other, for each other?’ I think that’s what people love, when you have a team doing that.”
“There’s just successful people on the team, on and off the court,” she said. “I think that really portrays through social media posts the type of people that you would want to surround yourself with. I think that also is what draws people into following the players at Nebraska.”
The success also likely has something to do with Nebraska itself. The Huskers’ fanbase is dedicated. Players such as Stivrins know that, and they know everyone is watching. They don’t allow that pressure to change their approach to social media though.
“I think most of our posts are very genuine,” Stivrins said. “We love this state and all of the support we get, and that’s what makes social media so fun. Fans get to see that while we are a team and we are teammates and they only see us on the court, we’re also best friends off the court.”
That approach speaks volumes about the women that make up the Huskers’ roster. They’re powerful on the court. We know that. The collegiate volleyball world knows that.
“But it’s not just on the court,” Stivrins said. “It’s off the court, too.”
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.