Setting the standard: How Katie DeFeo became a trendsetter for college-athlete YouTubers

Photo courtesy of USC Athletics 

After the final buzzer of every USC lacrosse game — home or away — dozens of children flock to Katie DeFeo, a sophomore attacker on the women’s lacrosse team. The catch: DeFeo rarely steps on the field.

Sidelined during her sophomore year of high school due to injury, DeFeo looked for ways to impact her team off the field. Filming on the GoPro her parents gave her for her 16th birthday, DeFeo made a commemorative video of her team’s state championship victory — and the rest was history.

In high school, DeFeo continued making videos for her lacrosse team and other sports at her school while playing basketball and lacrosse. She is the all-time assist leader at Severna Park High School, a top ranked lacrosse program in Maryland.

Her first video in college, “A day in the life of USC Lacrosse,” went viral, garnering over 384,000 views on YouTube. DeFeo recognized that there was an eager group of viewers who wanted  to know what it’s like to be a student-athlete.

“I remember searching YouTube late at night when I was in sixth or seventh grade trying to find videos like a day in the life of any college program, and I couldn’t,” DeFeo said.

DeFeo didn’t originally intend to start a weekly vlog.

“It was going to be just one — a day in the life of our team,” DeFeo said. “The video took off, then we thought we should do a gameday video and a road trip experience.

After teammate Amanda “Flay” Flayhan suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the 2018 season, DeFeo made videos to boost Flayhan’s mood.  

“After my injury, Katie turned the vlogs into a thing to make me laugh, get me off the couch and do something fun,” Flayhan said.

These videos were the start of DeFeo’s growth as a social media personality.

“We kind of used the vlog in a way to comfort her and have fun, and then we put it on the internet,” DeFeo said.

From there, DeFeo began releasing weekly videos focused on the team, her experience as a student-athlete and her life.

Just a month after she began posting videos about USC lacrosse, DeFeo started getting recognized in the street. Standing at 6-foot-3 and most often sporting some sort of Boston Celtics shirt, she’s hard to miss.

DeFeo’s teammates have also gained some fame. Working as a youth lacrosse coach over the summer, Flayhan noticed a change.

“I’d be shaking hands with the other team, seventh grade girls, and they would be star struck and say, ‘OMG! You’re Flay from the vlogs.’ It was crazy! I felt like I was a star,” Flayhan said.

DeFeo’s YouTube channel now has over 50,000 subscribers, nearly 150 videos and over 5 million total views, making her one of the most recognizable names in lacrosse.

DeFeo is comfortable discussing her role on the team as someone who doesn’t see consistent minutes.

“Not everybody can touch the field, and I know that,” DeFeo said. “Something that’s cool about our team is that everybody makes an impact. Our coach really emphasizes every single person in the locker room contributes whether we win or lose, and I truly, truly buy in and believe that.”

DeFeo’s teammates also acknowledge the dedication she puts into her channel day in and day out.

“Katie’s one of the hardest working and most dedicated people on this team,” junior attacker Izzy McMahon said. “The vlogs are her thing and even though she doesn’t see the field too much, it’s the attitude she brings to practice everyday and the amazing energy she gives us that I appreciate the most.”

DeFeo also spends lots of her time talking and taking pictures with fans she meets.

“Katie loves vlogging more than anything else,” Flayhan said. “She genuinely wants to give back and loves the kids.”

Her channel is one of the most popular lacrosse related channels on YouTube rivaling her biggest personal influence, professional lacrosse star Paul Rabil. Rabil recently started his own Professional Lacrosse League and is one of the best players in the world. His videos have a total of 26 million views.

“Paul is a great inspiration in my life,” DeFeo said. “I admire the way he translated his success in athletics into becoming a media and marketing personality.”

Rabil inspired one of the quirkier aspects of DeFeo’s channel: She constantly reminds you to subscribe to the channel during her videos. DeFeo and guests on the videos scream, “Subscribe!” into the camera while a box with the subscriber count flashes on the screen and audio of a punch plays.

DeFeo’s popularity will no doubt help the growth of the already fastest growing sport in America.  Lacrosse’s participation rate has grown over 226% since the inception of Division I lacrosse in 2001.

Flayhan and McMahon were the two teammates who gravitated toward the camera the most, but many other members of the lacrosse team have helped out with the videos.

Kerrigan Miller, a former No. 1 high school recruit, filmed videos for a series called “KT vs.” where DeFeo swaps sports with other USC athletes. Even though Miller never appeared on camera, her humorous commentary from behind the camera added an unexpected enjoyable element to the videos that fans love.

One of the guest athletes on “KT vs.,” USC volleyball player Victoria Garrick, launched her own YouTube channel, inspired by her appearance on DeFeo’s video. Now, Garrick’s following has grown to almost the same size as DeFeo’s.

DeFeo’s social circle also includes USC basketball starting guard Jonah Mathews. Mathews has appeared in numerous vlogs and DeFeo constantly shouts him out on her social media accounts.

“Katie’s so friendly and outgoing and people tend to gravitate toward someone who’s always positive and supportive,” Mathews said. “She has supported me from the day we met. She texts me after my games no matter the outcome telling me to keep going … To have someone like that in your corner is special and important.”

Mathews was surprised by the size of DeFeo’s fanbase after appearing in a few videos.

“When me and Katie filmed my first highlight video, I knew that she had a big following, but when we filmed our first vlog, I didn’t know it was that big,” Mathews said. “Being in one of her videos, I gained a lot of friends and fans.”

Without knowing it, DeFeo became the standard for a college-athlete YouTuber. There is a large population of young athletes, who desire the inside scoop YouTubers can give them about what life is like playing a sport in college.

Many young athletes desire the inside scoop that college athletes can share online. DeFeo’s videos detail her life as a student athlete, showing USC’s athlete laundry loop, private athletic dining hall and athlete-only study lounges.

Although most of DeFeo’s fan base consists of lacrosse players, her channel has a much further reach than just people interested in lacrosse.

Isabella Shadle, a high school student from Dallas, is a Katie DeFeo fan.

“I found Katie’s videos while I was searching for sports documentaries because I wanted to make one for my soccer team. The first video I watched was her ‘Fhockumentary,’ and I watched it like 20 times,” Shadle said. “I continue to follow her because I don’t know as many people who are as funny and passionate as her, so it’s very entertaining.”

While DeFeo’s fanbase spans across the U.S., many of them are on the East Coast, where lacrosse is more popular. Being in L.A. gives DeFeo the ability to reach a whole new fanbase and help lacrosse gain traction on the West Coast.

Balancing school, lacrosse and YouTube — in no particular order —  presents its challenges. During the season, DeFeo has 20 hours of lacrosse a week, a full 16-credit course load and weekend away games.

“The videos become my side-hobby, with the amount of time I can dedicate to them, but at the same time I’m really trying to use my platform to get somewhere,” DeFeo said.

Even though DeFeo began making videos for personal memories, once her videos started getting attention, her fans took over as the motivation for creating videos.

“I like to call them viewers because I can’t believe I really have fans,” DeFeo said.

But she does have fans, and she’s barely getting started.

“I have no idea what my future holds, but I know it involves my fans, my YouTube channel, and lacrosse,” she said.