TikTok is the platform people can’t stop talking about. Its complex algorithm captures the attention of users by consistently feeding individualized content that matches their viewing habits. Videos are 15-to-60 seconds, allowing the viewer to discover and watch a variety of videos in a short timespan. Perhaps most appealing to the largely Gen Z audience is the attainable virality of the platform. Creators can reach millions overnight with the “right” content.
The Gen Z-heavy user-base means two important groups in college athletics are active on the platform: current student-athletes and prospective athletes, or recruits.
For athletes, the potential to go viral on the platform sets TikTok apart from other popular social media networks. For those who lack the spotlight of a Power-5 program or nationally televised competition, TikTok represents an even playing field.
Student-athletes who consistently create and commit to building their footprint on the platform increase their odds of seeing longterm success. And while a single video may go viral, consistency is key. Multiple high-performing videos lead to consistent gains in followers and likes, and ultimately, the value of their personal channel.
To understand how athletes are using the platform to unlock their potential, we spoke to several athletes at various levels of college competition
UW-Superior Hockey Player Lawson McDonald Shares His Take on TikTok
We started our deep-dive into TikTok with Lawson McDonald from UW-Superior Hockey. UW-Superior is a Division-3 program, but that hasn’t limited Lawson’s exposure or success.
His TikTok presence currently outperforms every NHL team account in terms of total likes.
The Detroit Red Wings are leading the NHL on TikTok with 4 million likes, 193.5 thousand followers, and posted 175 videos. Meanwhile, Lawson has earned 5.4 million likes and 136.1 thousand followers, while sharing 118 total posts.
McDonald has a unique college hockey experience as he started his college hockey career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a Division-1 program, prior to transferring UW-Superior.
This shift has allowed McDonald to embrace his passion for content creation and connect with athletes at a variety of levels. But he wasn’t always committed to a presence on TikTok. He joked that, “if one of the first videos hadn’t blown up, I might have deleted the app.”
The video that started it all was from a team bonding activity last October when TikTok was still relatively new. The simple post gained 23.7 million views and 2.8 million likes essentially overnight.
“That’s why TikTok is awesome. You can post a video and get 10 thousand followers in one day.”
“That’s why TikTok is awesome. You can post a video and get 10K followers in one day,” said McDonald.
But one viral video doesn’t mean you “made it.” Successful athletes and creators need consistency to keep the success rolling. For many, the struggle with consistency lies in the public-facing transparency that has become common in the influencer economy.
“It’s going to feel uncomfortable at first,” McDonald said. He has set a goal to post a TikTok at least every other day because the algorithm “is really random and that’s why you have to put as much as you can out there, because you don’t know what’s going to explode.”
McDonald’s success on TikTok has led to an influx of questions from younger hockey players who aspire to play at the college level. He sees this niche as an opportunity to expand his brand further by creating more long-form content for YouTube.
His plan is to “try to show the fun side; it’s still a competitive level of hockey. It’s a place to play good hockey.”
He now uses a lot of his hockey content on TikTok to create curiosity for his Youtube channel and expand in-depth on the day-to-day of college hockey. “The goal is to get people from TikTok to YouTube because it’s a bit more personal.”
He views content creation as a “fun thing for me to share my experience with younger athletes specifically.”
Still, content creation is time-consuming, particularly for student-athletes juggling classes and practice. McDonald aims to post one video on YouTube per week. He believes that to build a valuable personal brand “you have to find ways to be efficient or sacrifice something in your life like video games or hanging out with friends on occasion.”
Stetson Baseball's Jackson Olson on TikTok's Impact
Jackson Olson, an infielder for Stetson Baseball, is another student-athlete with an appreciation for personal brand building. Olson previously played for Harford before the season cancelled due to COVID-19.
Olson’s rise to social media stardom wasn’t as immediate as McDonald’s. Olson instead put in significant time and effort to achieve his viral video. He also dealt with questions from his teammates, and himself, on why he was spending so much time making TikToks: “I was thinking about… do I keep doing this? There’s a stigma around college athletics that you have to be this very serious person. And that’s not me, that’s not who I am.”
He sees TikTok as an opportunity to show his real personality and lives by the saying “Don’t be afraid to be you.” Olson says, “it’s hard to be someone else. How are you going to keep making TikToks trying to be someone else? You can’t.” Embracing that personality has allowed Olson to authentically grow his personal brand and keep the creativity coming.
Now, Olson’s account is growing quickly and has earned various levels of virality on multiple videos.
Similar to McDonald’s TikTok strategy, Olson realizes that quick fame doesn’t lead to longterm success.
“If you go viral one time you’re not set. You can go viral two times, five times, or 30 times, but don’t stop posting.”
His advice? “If you go viral one time you’re not set. You can go viral two times, five times, or 30 times, but don’t stop posting.”
You can’t sit back and relax as a video is going viral, Olson says. “As a video is going viral I’ll post another one.”
This consistency is paying off for both Olson and the Stetson Baseball program. Much of the content that is being posted and received well by the audience is baseball-focused.
From showcasing facilities to sharing the campus, Jackson has received comments from potential students about attending the school, and from recruits who are interested in committing to the program.
Olson gave props Ole Miss Baseball for their presence on TikTok. “If I’m a 17-year-old kid and I see that they’re having fun, and I’m choosing between Old Miss and another school that doesn’t have a TikTok or doesn’t seem like they’re having fun; I want to be on the fun team, I want to play for them.”
He (and many of his peers) spend more time on TikTok compared to any other social media platform, and would even prefer watching TikTok over Netflix. According to Olson, TikTok is more personable with real personalities behind each account. There’s seemingly endless relatable content with the algorithm encouraging individuals to quickly find their niche and interact with content they care about. “Everything happening on social media right now is revolving around TikTok,” Olson said.
Comparing Athletes and Organizations on TikTok
The power of TikTok for student-athletes is undeniable. Take a look at how current athletes compare their teams and athletics programs below:
Hunter Woodhall | U.S.A. Paralympian, University of Arkansas Track & Field
Hunter Woodhall is a Paralympic track and field athlete who is currently competing at the University of Arkansas. Hunter has grown his following on TikTok to 2.5 million followers and has gained 81.2 million likes.
This is almost double the following of the Team USA account which currently has 1.4 million followers and 35.6 million likes.
Woodhall is also surpassing league-level accounts like the MLB Official Account, which has 1.9 million followers and 69.8 million likes.
These are both recognizable sports brands and both have hundreds of athletes competing for them. However, Hunter has created a personal connection and gives viewers behind-the-scenes access to his daily life. He has an extremely positive attitude and that connects with people on a more personal level.
JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Cavinder Twins
JuJu Smith-Schuster is known for his charismatic personality and ability to connect with a Gen Z audience on social media. However, the Cavinder twins, Hanna and Hailey, current Fresno State Basketball players are right there with him on TikTok.
JuJu has an audience of 2.2 million followers and has earned 22.4 million likes. The Cavinder twins are out-performing JuJu by 10 million likes.
Their following is similar with 2.1 million followers, but they have generated 35.5 million likes. Both accounts bring share their personalities and the behind-the-scenes access of athletics. The Cavinders are more frequent with their posting and it pays off.
Other Notable Athletes on TikTok
TikTok has proven its ability to put athletes on a level playing field. Many college sports fans have heard of Haley Cruse from Oregon Softball. Her softball dominance has helped to create a large social media presence with 656 thousand followers and 17.5 million likes on TikTok.
Just as recognizable off-the-field is Keely Cartrett from Bemont Women’s Soccer. She transferred from the University of Georgia and has recently grown her TikTok presence to 643.5 thousand followers and 15.8 million likes.
Finally, there’s a trend for teammates to grow alongside one another on the platform. The Penn State Men’s Gymnastics team’s popularity has spread, starting with Michael Jaroh who has 2 million followers and 60 million likes, while also getting his teammates involved. Josh Reinstein currently has grown to 89.2 thousand followers and 4.0 million likes and Eric Lung has earned 26.6 thousand followers and 551.2 thousand likes. By sharing team-related content in addition to individual personalities, they are able to give themselves and their program a boost.
These student-athletes will soon be able to benefit from the personal brands they’ve built. They’re already endorsing their teams in a positive light, showing the next generation of recruits a behind-the-scenes of team culture. As TikTok’s popularity continues to grow, we look forward to watching new tactics and success for athletes at every level of sport.