On the field, Oregon outfielder Haley Cruse says opponents typically see her as "that TikTok girl." On TikTok, she identifies herself in her bio as "That Oregon softball girl."
She doesn't mind whatever you want to call her. And why would she? By any measure, she's a star in both worlds.
Cruse made her 100th career start in center field for the Ducks on Friday night against Texas State in the Austin Regional of the NCAA tournament. This season she was a first team All-Pac 12 selection, leading the Ducks in batting average (.384), slugging percentage (.610), hits (68), and runs (44) heading into Sunday's action. She's Oregon's active career leader in hits (202) and runs scored (152), ranking sixth all-time in program history in that category. After prevailing in two win-or-go-home games on Saturday, Cruse and the Ducks will need to beat Texas twice on Sunday to advance to the Super Regionals.
This season has been quite a rebound to the disappointment of her original senior year, which was mostly wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just days after Cruse was named Pac-12 Player of the Week last year, the season was canceled. She wasn't sure if she'd ever play again. She went home to California unsure of what she'd do next.
In the meantime, she started killing time on TikTok.
Two years ago, on May 22, 2019, Cruse posted her first video on the platform, dancing with teammate Jasmine Sievers in their hotel room. They posted several more quickly and those were a big hit. But during the lockdown last year, Cruse admittedly went a little stir crazy and burned pent-up energy by creating dances and posting videos. She became a hit.
Now, after posting more than 300 clips, Cruse has amassed 728,000 followers on TikTok (not to mention another 233,000 on Instagram and 117,000 on Twitter). Her videos regularly draw more than a million views, including several softball-centric clips that top three million.
"During quarantine, I realized how big of a platform I had and how capable I was of doing something with it," she said. "At that time, I thought my playing career might be over, so I was looking at different opportunities. Just realizing the opportunities I have had strictly because of that platform was really eye-opening for me."
Cruse has used all these outlets for everything for encouragement, such as a path from backup to all-conference star ...
It's not always sunshine and rainbows, but I learned to find joy in the process! #fyp #athlete #softball
... to mental health discussions, such as a Twitter thread on how to cope with performance anxiety for athletes.
Performance anxiety among athletes is something that is not talked about enough! It can be crippling and inhibit even the most elite athletes. I am no expert, but as someone who struggles with performance anxiety, I thought I'd share some ways that have helped me cope. THREAD:— Haley Cruse (@haley_crusee) March 31, 2021
But sometimes she just uses it to embarrass her boyfriend, Garrett Mitchell, a UCLA baseball star who was drafted No. 20 overall in the MLB draft last June.
That wasn't in the scouting report. 😂 #MLBDraft https://t.co/vhBfpLTshS— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) June 11, 2020
Mitchell has been a frequent subject and collaborator, including a lot of dancing of his own.
"Those are a fan favorite," Cruse said.
And with so many fans, Cruse had to become accustomed to living so publicly. The hashtag #haleycruse on other people's videos has nearly 5 million views on TikTok, for example.
"It can be a little overwhelming at times so I'm just careful of what I share," she said. "I make sure to keep the private stuff private and just share what people like to see. It can be a little weird when people know private details about me that I share when thinking no one's really paying attention, but it's something I've become accustomed to over the past few years."
She knows other teams take notice, because she said all the trash-talk she hears from opponents or their fans is about TikTok.
"From everyone," Cruse said. "It's just easy to point at my TikTok if they're trying to get a rise out of me, but it's something I've learned to laugh at and play along with. It's definitely easy to pick on me for that."
Cruse is part of a wave of female athletes at Oregon who have become viral stars. Clips of current WNBA player Sabrina Ionescu clips became favorites on Twitter before Ducks basketball player Sedona Prince exposed the NCAA tournament's disparities in facilities for women and men and started a national discussion.
"I think it's definitely been a thing at Oregon and it's really cool to see our female sports getting a lot of recognition, because, you know, generally, that's not something you see a lot," Cruse said. "Oregon definitely gives you a platform just by wearing it across your chest, because it's a very well-known national brand, but I think that our female athletes do a great job of promoting themselves, and letting people get to know them off the field as well."
That kind of relationship with fans is why there could be huge opportunities for women after the NCAA allows its players to profit from their name, image and likeness.
A recent study from Temple University's School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management said women likely had a greater earning potential than men in revenue sports like football and basketball.
"[College athletes] are really engaging a specific and targeted audience from a demographic perspective," Dr. Thilo Kunkel, the author of the Temple study, told ESPN in March. "They're becoming really effective endorsers -- and maybe it's not the next national shampoo commercial, but it's companies more focused on getting their brand out there and connecting with an audience."
Cruse is poised to capitalize on that financially for herself now that her college career is at its end.
She's eager to do so, and excited for future athletes who will have that option. But after her whirlwind experience, Cruse is interested in how schools will work with athletes in the future to help them manage essentially having a social-media job. (Cruse got her master's this year in advertising and brand responsibility.)
"I think back and I couldn't even imagine having to deal with brand partnerships and agents and things like that while being a student-athlete," Cruse said. "I couldn't imagine the stress of it. I'm really interested to see how athletes are able to take advantage of it. The opportunity, especially for female athletes who might not usually get the same recognition [as men], to be able to profit is really exciting."
Her advice to those who are ready to become influencers?
"Just stay authentic and don't try to create an image that isn't you," she said. "That's what creates longevity. Just be yourself and get people to love you for who you are, rather than trying to create a fake image online."
Cruse found TikTok helped her amid the uncertainty of a tough year in 2020. With her new platform, she believes her success on the field in her bonus senior year, including helping lead her Ducks to the postseason, has played a big part in reshaping her future.
"I think sometimes a lot of people see me as that TikToker, not so much as an elite athlete," Cruse said. "Getting to have success on the field, along with that platform has been really cool for me because I'm no longer just the TikTok girl. I'm the TikTok girl who can play softball."
That's why Cruse said she won't stray far from the field, even when she's no longer playing.
"I think I've made a strong brand for myself within the softball realm so I definitely want to stay involved with softball in any way I can," she said. "I think what people like to see is just me being myself, no matter what it is I'm doing -- if it's playing softball or with my boyfriend -- just to find joy out of that. So I'm just going to continue doing what I've been doing and if any opportunities arise from that, then that's a win-win for me."