Even before Nia Dennis’ near-perfect performance last weekend, UCLA Gymnastics has been vaulting to new heights on social media.
For each of the past five years, one viral phenomenon after another has helped the program reach more than 358,000 followers on Instagram. That is not only top among UCLA’s 21 teams, but when combined with their more than 750,000 Facebook and Twitter followers, the Bruins’ gymnasts have the largest social media following among all of women’s college team sports.
In terms of numbers, UCLA is beaten by only one other female club: the United States Women’s National Soccer Team, which boasts more than two million followers on Instagram.
“I attribute all of this [social-media success] to the student-athletes,” Liza David, the Bruins’ athletic communications director and sports information director, said. David also runs UCLA Gymnastics’ social media accounts. “A lot of these girls on the team – they are not afraid to show their personalities. And that’s why I say that all of the growth is coming from them.”
That latest viral moment came on February 23, as the Bruins prepared as UCLA faced Utah at Pauley Pavilion.
When Dennis stepped to the floor, she chose a Beyonce-inspired set, hitting spins and flips to the tunes of “Crazy in Love” and “Ego.” By the end of the routine, she finished her hands over her head in the shape of a crown. She also hit the “woah,” a popular dance move that served as the exclamation point on a night where she received a near-perfect score of 9.975 for her performance.
After Dennis’ display, celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, Steve Harvey, Alicia Keys, and politician Kamala Harris were just a handful of those praising the 21-year-old on social media. Although UCLA would ultimately lose to Utah, 198.075 to 198.025, it had no adverse effect on the former’s social media presence.
On February 27, the Bruins posted Dennis’ eye-catching display on Twitter and YouTube through the Pac-12 Network’s profile. The team videographer is Deanna Hong, who has been with UCLA Gymnastics since 2014 and is described by David as the, “most amazing videographer for our team, an incredible storyteller, and also a great filmer as well.”
With the help of the Pac-12 Network, the video went viral almost immediately, David said. The video currently has more than 10 million views on Twitter.
Of the 1,600 videos that the Pac-12 Network has posted on Twitter this year, Dennis’ display is undoubtedly its highest-performing piece of content, Mike Metzler, digital marketing manager at Conviva, wrote in an email.
An average video from the Pac-12 Network sees roughly 13k views per video, according to Conviva. The video posted on the UCLA Athletics YouTube account has 30 times more views than its average views per video, according to Conviva.
Even with all of the flashy metrics, turning Dennis into UCLA’s next viral gymnast took less work than David initially thought.
“There was also another tweet that went viral of the same video, just that person ripping our YouTube video and posting it on their Twitter account,” David said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to how things go viral. This person who posted it initially had like 300 followers. But somehow, it blew up somewhere, and then we blew up shortly after that.”
“You had two different tweets going viral with the same content basically, but I guess it’s just kind of really all in who sees it,” David added. “You get the right person to see it and share it and boom.” In that regard, the school’s proximity to Hollywood doesn’t hurt.
UCLA Gymnastics’ Instagram account has grown from more than 349,000 followers on February 22 to 357,000 on March 2, David said. While the team usually adds 1,000 followers per week during its competitive season – which runs from January to April – she largely attributes the recent spike to Dennis.
UCLA Gymnastics won the 2018 NCAA National Championship and saw a 58.5% growth in Instagram followers between its title and the end of the 2019 season. Since then, the account has gained another 12.9%.
The most impressive part about UCLA Gymnastics’ social media following is its ability to make its way into the national conversation. David said that it all began in 2016 when a video of Bruins gymnast Sophia DeJesus’s 9.925 showing against Utah saw more than 492,000 shares on Facebook.
Similar to Dennis this year, 2017 saw Hallie Mossett perform to a medley of Beyonce songs like “Formation,” “Partition,” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” She not only scored a 9.975 to help UCLA beat Arizona, but it has been shared and viewed more than 107,000 and 11.4 million times, respectively, since its inception.
Then in 2018 and 2019, Katelyn Ohashi stole the show in becoming the Bruins’ most significant viral moment, David said. One particular moment was at the 2018 Collegiate Challenge when Ohashi threw down an impressive floor routine that earned her a perfect 10. The routine has drawn more than 44.1 million views, 167,200 retweets, and 700,500 likes since debuting on January 13, 2019.
“It’s been almost exactly a year since UCLA Gymnastics went viral with their Katelyn Ohashi floor routine, and it seems they’ve done it again [with Nia Dennis],” Metzler wrote. “The first time an account goes viral, it is often luck; however, the second time a brand goes viral, it’s often not an accident.”
“No doubt the social team at UCLA Gymnastics leaned into their success from the previous year and learned from their first go-round,” Metzler added. “Learnings often include how to write the most compelling copy, how to cross-promote from other accounts, as UCLA Gymnastics did by leveraging other UCLA accounts, and what types of content to create after the video goes viral to support the original piece.”
What makes David especially proud is the following that UCLA gymnastics has been able to cultivate on social media. On both Facebook and Instagram, the program has more than 291,270 and 357,000 followers, respectively- better than its men’s basketball and football programs. The Bruins’ recent debut on TikTok gives David another platform to help bring more awareness to her 22 gymnasts.
“I think it just goes to show that there is an audience out there for women’s sports and women’s sports don’t get the amount of media attention that they deserve,” David said. “So to see that they’re at least getting the attention on social media, that’s a good start.”