With millions of dollars possibly awaiting, the trend of elite college athletes leaving school early to go into the professional ranks has boomed. For fans, long gone are the days of surely knowing you will get to follow the progression of these stars and your teams for an entire four years.
It could be very easy for basketball players, in particular, to be forgotten after just one year on campus. But in the modern media age, these athletes are able to make more of a lasting impact than ever.
The top recruits know that professional fame and fortune are in plain sight after they pay their dues in college and continue to put in the due diligence to increase their draft stock. They know the importance of building their personal brand as early as possible by leveraging the powers of social media.
For those who do it right, they are considered superstars before even stepping foot onto their respective campuses.
A prime example is Duke’s powerhouse freshman Zion Williamson, who is producing highlight reel after highlight reel each game. With Williamson topping a million Instagram followers as a senior in high school, the hype surrounding him entering this season was unlike any seen before.
All he’s done is reach the bar that was expected of him, and dunk over it. It’s simply hard to miss Williamson on social media, whether it be on ESPN or Bleacher Report or his personal page.
Almost assuredly, Williamson will forgo his final years of NCAA eligibility for the NBA draft when this season ends. Now, with more than 2 million followers on Instagram, he has managed to blossom to new heights since arriving in Durham and posting about his whirlwind college life.
If Williamson can lead the Blue Devils to a national championship this season, he has the potential to go down as one of the best players ever at one of the most storied basketball programs in the country — after just one year. That would put him in the same conversation as Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, who won two national championships for Duke in the early ‘90s while all staying in school for four years.
Meanwhile, the nation’s best football players are making names for themselves on social media, too. Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 1 football recruit in the country for the class of 2019, according to ESPN, has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram who are soon to be cheering him on at Oregon.
Football players are required to have been out of high school for three years before entering the NFL draft, which prolongs their stays in college, to the delight of fans. They aren’t coming and going as quickly as the hoops stars, but they still often cut their time short. More importantly, they are using the same tactics online to ensure that their legacies are stronger than ever.
Social media platforms give an equal opportunity for athletes who maybe otherwise wouldn’t get national attention to be recognized. UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi has become a viral sensation over the past few weeks after her vibrant floor routine that scored a perfect 10 found its way onto the internet.
If Ohashi was competing 15 years ago, the only way to have seen her routine would be to go to a gymnastics meet in person. Now, because of YouTube, millions of people know Ohashi’s name, and college gymnastics as a whole has received a well-deserved buzz.
Truly, it’s to the benefit of all college athletes to use social media in the right way to promote their teams and also themselves. It even helps them to get there in the first place, as coaches, too, are using social media for recruiting purposes.
It’s common for players to upload highlight reels to YouTube in hopes of catching the eyes of Division I programs, and coaches are now even communicating directly with recruits via Twitter.
Obviously, there’s a fine line that college athletes have to navigate on their social media accounts, but if they are able to stay out of trouble, the opportunities during and after college are boundless. After all, the sports industry is a moneymaking business, and as athletes elevate their personal brand across the internet, more profit is available to be capitalized on.
In the coming years, look out for the continuing crossover of Instagram celebrities and Heisman Trophy winners that will produce stars who are more famous and successful than ever.
Charlie Griffen is the weekly columnist. Contact him at [email protected].