A Times Square billboard featuring Hanna Cavinder (twin sisters) and Haley Cavinder (leading scorers of the Fresno State University Basketball team), was placed on July 1. They’d just signed on as faces of Boost Mobile.
The Cavinder twins used TikTok during COVID-19 lockdown to increase their social media audiences. One May 2020 TikTok video showing the twins performing three pointers and dancing on their backyard hoop drew over 5 million hits. Their shared TikTok account now has 3.8 million followers. Not to mention their nearly 350,000 Instagram followers and their 70,000 subscribers on YouTube. The WNBA TikTok account boasts 873K more followers. Their June 2021 video with Tom shaking his shoulders and point to the cameras using two fingers was viewed more than 29,000,000 times.
Reply to @dane1985 he raised a whole squad tho 🤷🏼♀️ #fyp #foryou
♬ original sound – Myke_Livinlegend
Given such eye-popping stats, it’s no wonder that the Cavinders, who are juniors, have emerged as early stars of the NIL era. They’ve also signed deals with brands like SoFi and Eastbay. Hanna is a two time all-conference player, and Haley was the 2021 Mountain West Player and Freshman of The Year. Their combined sponsorship revenue now exceeds $1 million.
A month ago, however a surprising offer came to their attention: World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), wanted to sign Cavinder twins. This agreement would promote pro-wrestling and possibly trade in their basketballs for bodyslams. Although the twins didn’t see Smackdown as a possibility in their futures they began to look into the idea. WWE programs are broadcast in over 180 countries. Revenues will surpass $1 billion, for the first year. Six-figure sums are expected to be earned by the WWE twins. This is a way for them to reach more people. WWE looks for a way to bring its product to younger hoops fans.
“We definitely didn’t grow up wanting to become wrestlers,” says Haley Cavinder. “It just kind of happened. It’s right up our alley because it is entertainment. And that’s what Hanna and I do on the side.”
On Dec. 8 the WWE revealed that the Cavinder twins and 13 other college athletes from schools such as Duke, Alabama and Portland State, and participating in sports ranging from basketball to wrestling to middle-distance running, have joined the WWE’s inaugural NIL program, dubbed “Next In Line.” (Wrestler Gable Stevenson, an Olympic gold medalist in Tokyo who is competing in his senior season at the University of Minnesota, inked an agreement with the WWE earlier this year). For compensation of low five to six figures, the athletes will post about WWE on social media, and will appear at WWE events. Athletes also will have access to the WWE Performance Center (Florence), where they can practice acrobatics and learn other skills that will help them become WWE stars.
The deals don’t mean that athletes are committed to join the WWE once their college athletic careers end. But the NCAA’s long-awaited loosening of NIL restrictions allows the organization to bring the Cavinder twins, and others, into the fold. While several pro wresters were college athletes—Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, for example, played football at the University of Miami—WWE is now formally tapping into college athletics as a recruiting pool.
“I’ve heard it so much over the years … ‘if there had been a pathway, man, I would have gone down that road,’” says Paul Levesque, the WWE’s Executive Vice President of Global Talent Strategy & Development, who might be more familiar to most as “Triple H,”Former WWE Superstar. “We’re creating that path.”
The Cavinders say they’re cooking up ways to promote the WWE on TikTok and elsewhere; other college athletes signees are already embracing their roles as dropkick ambassadors. Joe Spivak from Northwestern, for instance, uploaded a picture of him swimming naked in Lake Michigan at 30 degrees. He then went on Instagram to show that he had put on his WWE shirt and hat to prove that nobody can outwork him. “Maybe in ten years, I’m going to be bigger than The Rock,” Spivak tells TIME. “Come on. That’s the goal.”
Sign-off from the school required
Levesque claims that NCAA Amateurism Rules had prevented WWE from actively recruiting college students. The WWE was concerned that tickets to a show, or a recruiting dinner, could have counted as an improper benefit and risk a player’s eligibility. These fears were shared by the athletes who were unwilling to talk with them about the WWE until after they graduated. “They would say, ‘look, I’d love to talk to you about WWE, but let me talk to you about when I get out of school,’” says Levesque.
NIL agreements must be approved by schools. A partnership with WWE has clear consequences for the school and athletes. The WWE has been involved in a variety of scandals over the years. These include allegations of sexual misconduct, head injuries, performance-enhancing drugs and other controversial issues. Schools have so far been happy with their WWE deals, even though there are potential dangers. When Lexi Gordon, a Duke basketball player, was offered a WWE NIL deal, she had to get it approved by the university’s athletic department. According to Duke’s NIL policy, “a Duke student-athlete may not engage in any NIL activity that promotes products or services related to related to gambling or performance-enhancing supplements on the NCAA’s banned drug list,” which include cannabinoids. It is forbidden for Duke students-athletes to endorse alcohol products. The WWE was able to pass the test.
Continue reading: Why The NCAA Should Be Terrified Of Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s Concurrence
Elon University’s athletic compliance office signed off on the WWE NIL deal for Jon Seaton, a 6’1″, 275-pound freshman football player whose TikTok account—which features Seaton discussing items like “things that give big guys nightmares” (the scale at the doctors office, roller coaster safety bar systems) and “big guy catchphrases” (“I could eat”)—has 1.6 million followers. Elon must ensure deals adhere to NCAA, conference and school guidelines. “While Elon University’s policy reserves the right to prohibit a student-athlete from contracting into deals in certain categories that contradict the institution’s values, we support our student-athletes’ ability to choose branding opportunities and companies with whom they would like to partner for NIL activities, including those that may lead to potential career opportunities,” Jeffrey Scheible, Elon’s associate athletic director for compliance and administration, tells TIME. “In this particular instance, we do not believe that WWE violates any of the aforementioned policies, nor does it fall into a category that we would prohibit at the institutional level.”
“I don’t think there’s any concern,” says Hanna Cavinder. “It’s just entertainment. We love connecting with our fans and bringing our audience to their audience and meshing them all together.”
Former Harvard football player Chris Nowinski joined the WWE in the early 2000s, wrestling under the stage name “Chris Harvard.” He says he suffered a “handful” of concussions diagnosed retrospectively: in 2003, a kick to the chin in a match causing Post-Concussion Syndrome and ended his career. Nowinski earned a PhD and is the co-founder of and CEO at Concussion Legacy Foundation. This non-profit supports athletes and veterans who have been affected by concussions or chronic traumatic. He is a strong supporter of the NIL program, and believes that WWE has become safer by allowing chair strikes to their heads. (Nowinski has spoken to WWE wrestlers about recognizing the symptoms of head trauma and not “playing through” them; the WWE has provided financial support to the Concussion Legacy Foundation).
Nowinski says college sports carry more risk than professional wrestling. The organization could have more incentives to avoid injuries because they may be long-term employers for student-athletes. “At the college level, you are replaceable,” he says. “Your coach is worried about losing their job. They’re training you wrong, they’re asking you to do things that are too dangerous. You will actually walk into a much, much better environment with WWE.”
“I’d love to throw a chair at somebody”
WWE contracts were signed by athletes with varying degrees of experience in pro wrestling. Carlos Aviles (Oregon State discus) and Carlos Aviles (hammer thrower), grew-up watching WWE when he was a kid. He also loved John Cena. “A lot of the applications of being a throwing athlete apply to the WWE,” says Aviles. Aviles says that if you are able to throw a shot, why not challenge a 300-pound opponent. “A lot of the applications come from the shoulders, the legs, the hips,” he says. Aleeya Hutchins, a middle distance track runner at Wake Forest, doesn’t have any combat sports experience. But she’s willing to give it a try. “Sure, I’d love to throw a chair at somebody,” says Hutchins, “but not hurt them.”
They know they must be the heel as WWE wrestlers. “All athletes have an ego, and I have a pretty big one every now and again,” says Aviles. “Honestly, I can be the a-hole all the time.”
The Cavinder twins say they’d be more comfortable in a more benevolent WWE role. They can probably cast their own casting calls due to the large audience they have. “In today’s world, somebody like the Cavinder twins who are already out there showing that they are pretty much larger than life and creating brands on their own, those are people that are interesting to us,” says Levesque. “They clearly have the personality and clearly are smart enough to figure out how to manipulate that charisma to make something of themselves. We can amplify that.”
However, this IsAfter all, the WWE. Cavinder fan were putting forward potential WWE stars for Hanna or Hayley during an Instagram Live session. They were particularly interested in one.