If the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t canceled her school activities, Katie Feeney may not be a millionaire.

In April, after Sherwood High moved to virtual learning, Feeney’s mother, hoping to keep her daughter occupied, suggested growing sea monkeys and documenting their progress. Katie Feeney wanted to use the pandemic to build her social media following, so this seemed like a good start.

Since then, Feeney has earned more than $1 million, she said, from companies paying her to advertise their products and platforms seeking her content. She has amassed more than 5.4 million followers on TikTok and has legitimized what some merely daydream about being a career path.

“It’s just so surreal, and it’s crazy that this much money can be made by posting on social media,” said Feeney, an 18-year-old senior who participated in track and field and dance. “Going into it, I didn’t think that was possible. It’s still kind of hard for me to process.”

After the pandemic prompted a shutdown of sports at all levels, local athletes suddenly had a rare commodity: free time. For some, such as Feeney, that meant more opportunities to build an online brand and identity through platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.

As global superstars such as LeBron James and Tom Brady continue to deliver more content directly to their fans, a trickle-down effect has reached younger athletes. Many high school and college athletes have committed themselves to adding a new dimension to their sports identities by posting videos that showcase their physical feats and personalities.

“I do play a main role now in how I am portrayed to society,” Kentucky track athlete Masai Russell said. “People can go to my page and see me laughing and joking and see the real me. No one else can go against that. I have the impact on how I’m viewed.”

Russell, the 2018 All-Met Athlete of the Year from Bullis, has more than 265,000 followers on TikTok in addition to sizable numbers on Instagram and YouTube. Her content is often a mix of personal and professional — insights into the life of a high-level college athlete interspersed with dances or pranks.

TikTok, especially, has taken hold of young athletes in the past year. The short, user-created videos often riff on viral tends, sometimes including trending dances to popular music.

Feeney has been dancing since she was 4, when she attended mom-and-daughter classes in Olney, so displaying her passion on TikTok was an easy transition. When school was in person, Feeney and friends on her sports teams danced together before and after practices and performances. Feeney even originated a viral TikTok dance based off Madcon’s song “Beggin.’”

@katiefeeneyy

love seeing my dance all over tik tok💗😆no school today for me...hbu? #foryou #dance #trend

♬ Beggin' - Madcon

Now, dancing on TikTok allows Feeney to showcase her skills and savor the pastime without organized sports.

For high school and college athletes who are accustomed to playing in front of large audiences, social media can provide a similar performative thrill — especially when many programs are sidelined or proceeding without spectators.

“It’s insane how much sports has helped me in my social media life and presence,” Long Island University freshman football player Joseph Dagbe said. “If you play sports and you walk into a gym, there’s going to be people saying things and staring at you. But you’re expected to perform and do your best job with all eyes on you. With social media, anybody in the world can see what you’re doing, so all eyes are on you.”

Dagbe, a former football and basketball star at South Lakes, has long viewed the Internet as the best way to transcend the “athlete” label. Occasionally he posts football-related content, but he also makes music, posts video blogs, sells clothing and promotes charity.

“[The Internet] amplifies every single message I have, every single goal of mine,” Dagbe said. “I can just post about something I want to do and people will help. … It is a tool to get in doors and meet people and talk to people that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

From the time she began attending dance classes as a child, Feeney enjoyed the spotlight. She started using social media in 2015, making dance and lip-syncing videos on Musical.ly, a platform that eventually merged into TikTok. Within two years, artists began paying Feeney to perform to their songs.

She continued through high school. Among classes, serving as treasurer of Sherwood’s student government association and dance and track and field practice (she runs the 400-meter dash), Feeney didn’t have much free time to create content. She tried to fit in videos between classes or once she returned home in the evenings. Feeney said she slept about four hours each night.

Still, she found a way to resonate; by the time the pandemic started, Feeney had accumulated about 2 million TikTok followers. Over the past year, her presence has erupted.

Feeney has long enjoyed watching people unbox products and review them on YouTube, and she believed there was a desire for that content elsewhere, especially as shopping moved primarily online during the pandemic.

She started by purchasing those sea monkeys on Amazon and putting together a series on their growth. Then she bought other products off Amazon — an Apple iPad Air, miniature snacks, makeup — and reviewed them for her followers. She records and edits the videos on her iPhone and said each video takes one to two hours to create.

As Feeney’s following grew, companies made deals with her to advertise their products. In addition to her social media, she advertises items on Amazon Live and Snapchat, a multimedia messaging application. It pays users when their videos make the application’s “Spotlight” feature, which shares the video with millions of users.

As college athletes, Dagbe and Russell cannot profit off their platforms. But both say the true value of a large following is being able to control your own image and show fans and friends a side of you that is not usually public.

Russell posted her first TikTok in early March 2020, just before the Wildcats’ season was shut down. Her content has become more and more popular, thanks in part to a May video showing a typical workout routine for a track athlete.

@masairussell

3 exercises to get “Track Girl” legs

♬ Captain Hook - Megan Thee Stallion

Now that her follower count has soared, she posts videos with a large audience in mind.

“I can’t just post or say anything,” she said. “I have to be very cautious. … I have to make sure that what I’m posting, it doesn’t matter who sees it.”

Dagbe has also seen his content production increase over the past few months. LIU begins a condensed spring football season Sunday, but the months leading up to this point were mostly filled with distanced workouts. That allowed Dagbe to spend more time generating ideas for music, videos and clothing. After his college football career is over, he hopes to continue working in a creative field.

“It’s the best time to be alive and the age I am,” he said. “How much better can it get than being able to log on and post something and have everybody in the world able to see it?”

Feeney plans to study business and marketing in college next year. Though she said she would have relied on financial aid to make her college decision, the money she has earned will allow her to attend her ideal school, where she plans to continue making videos.

“Doing social media as a creator is a job for me, and it’s the best possible job I could ever imagine,” Feeney said. “I’ll keep creating content as long as I can, and I’ll see where it takes me. It’s hard to even think about because there are so many possibilities, so I’m excited.”

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