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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Rising Pirates Star and His Famous Girlfriend Are Sparking National Buzz

  • Last year’s No. 1 draft pick will make his MLB debut, generating big expectations both locally and nationally.
  • The fame of Paul Skenes is partly boosted by his girlfriend, LSU gymnast and influencer Olivia Dunne.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of MLB’s most challenged teams in recent years is about to get a major boost in both talent and notoriety, thanks to the arrival of a phenom rookie pitcher who is one of the highest touted prospects of his generation, has already made financial history, and before throwing a single big-league pitch has one of the buzziest social media followings of any MLB player. 

The Pirates have called up prospect Paul Skenes, last year’s No. 1 pick in the MLB draft, and he will make his first major league start Saturday against the Cubs. The star of last year’s College World Series championship team at LSU and the tournament’s most outstanding player, expectations have only grown since then for Skenes. Since he completed his college career and was selected by Pittsburgh, Skenes secured a $9.2 million signing bonus that beat the prior league record by nearly 10%. He then backed up those expectations by posting a 0.99 ERA so far this year in the minor leagues and striking out 45 batters in 27.1 innings. 

Beyond simply racking up statistics, Skenes has captured the attention of fans in part through frequent social media sharing of game video of his electric fastball reaching 100 miles per hour and his wipeout slider. His online fame is further burnished by his relationship with girlfriend Olivia Dunne, a star LSU gymnast and also a national champion, who has a combined TikTok and Instagram following of more than 13 million—as well as the status as one of the leading figures for college name, image, and likeness rights. 

Some news stories about the promotion of Skenes from MiLB to the majors have led with Dunne, and a TikTok clip chronicling his finding out about being called up has generated more than three million views. 

A Team in Need

The arrival of Skenes is already giving a sizable jolt to a Pirates organization that has frequently struggled on the field, and to a fan base increasingly wary of the financial commitment of owner Bob Nutting to competing. Since the team’s last playoff season, in 2015, the Pirates have posted just one winning year. Despite recent moves to solidify both local broadcast coverage and the area around PNC Park, the Pirates still have MLB’s second-smallest payroll at less than $83 million. 

The debut of Skenes will be carried nationally on the MLB Network, and locally, asking prices for tickets start at $40 for lower-level seats, and quickly move into triple digits. For Friday’s game, many of those same seats are comparatively selling for about half as much.

“Skenes’ arrival feels like Day 1 for the Pirates. A re-set. A new beginning for a crappy franchise,” wrote Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Mark Madden. “Skenes is all Pittsburgh is talking about. It’s everywhere. We know exactly what he is. Skenes offers a rare, legitimate ray of hope for the Pirates.”

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