There are three players with more than 20,000 Instagram followers from this year’s men’s Final Four teams combined. There are six such players on the bench for the South Carolina women’s team.
Favored over the field en route to the NCAA tournament, the 36-0 Gamecocks have supported the hype by advancing to the semifinals. Her social media following is almost iconic in her devotion, but many other women’s college basketball stars have large online followings. Of the 20 players in the Final Four with the most social media followers, 16 are women, including the entire top 7.
That group is led by LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson, who is a rap artist and averages 11.1 points per game on the court; she has 879,000 followers. Her teammate Angel Reese, who has averaged 23.2 points and 15.7 rebounds per game this season, is in second place with 533,000 followers. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who hit a historic 40-point triple-double in the Elite Eight, is well below them with 230,000 followers, which is still five times more than any other player in the men’s national semifinals.
Part of the disparity can be attributed to the number of upsets in the men, which eliminated many top-flight teams. The Final Four’s combined seeded teams total 23, the second-highest total in tournament history, and it’s the first semifinal without a top-three seedling. However, UConn is still a powerhouse with the third-largest men’s basketball budget in the country, and yet its top scorer, Adama Sanogo, has fewer Instagram followers than a dozen South Carolina women.
Zoom out to include other schools and the results are the same. Among the four men and women seeded at #1, six of the top 10 players with the most Instagram followers are women. Comparing the semifinalists of both genders for the 2023 Naismith College Player of the Year, Stanford’s Cameron Brink and South Carolina’s Aaliyah Boston, along with Clark and Reese, all have a larger fan base than any other man eligible for the trophy.
Deep March Madness runs cause major bumps in social media followers. Reese, for example, started the tournament with 447,000 Instagram followers and has grown that total by almost 20% in less than two weeks. In the past two days since her team advanced to the Final Four, she’s been gaining about 14 new followers per minute, according to Social Blade.
In the NIL era, college athletes can leverage social media followers for large scale sponsorship deals. Clark, for example, had reportedly made $1 million in advertising revenue prior to this season. According to a report by Sponsor United, Reese has more NIL deals than any other college basketball player. Athletes who aren’t nearly as famous can still make some money from paid social media posts.
However, earning potential doesn’t directly correlate to social media fan base — according to On3’s NIL ratings, seven of the top 10 college basketball players with the highest sponsorship value are still men. Publicly available data from Opendorse, which represents part of the national landscape, suggests that female college basketball players generally earn about half as much as their male counterparts.
However, the number of social media stars in women’s collegiate basketball this season is an indicator of the sport’s growing popularity, as is the growth in local ticket sales and national television viewership. And unlike most of the country’s most well-known male players, many of them will be showing their skills on the pitch this weekend.