8:33 AM ET
Adam RittenbergESPN Senior Writer
- College football reporter.
- Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
- Graduate of Northwestern University.
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- An hour before the first bell of SummerSlam, the West Club at Nissan Stadium buzzed with activity, and Haley and Hanna Cavinder were right in the middle of it.
The Cavinder twins, who play basketball at Miami and became social media stars with their popular TikTok videos during the COVID-19 pandemic, had traveled to their first WWE event in July after signing a name, image and likeness deal with the promotion in December 2021. They're part of WWE's NIL program, "Next In Line," which signs college athletes before the end of their careers, exposes them to WWE events and superstars, and then begins preparing them for careers in the ring.
At the reception, the Cavinders were inseparable and hard to miss. The 5-foot-6 blond sisters posed for pictures with WWE superstars Rhea Ripley, Damian Priest and The Street Profits. They chatted up Liv Morgan, then the SmackDown women's champion, who provided her phone number for any questions about WWE.
"She's so dope," the twins said after meeting Liv.
When not taking pictures, the Cavinders strategized. They're accomplished athletes -- both earned All-Mountain West honors while at Fresno State, and Haley is Miami's leading scorer this season -- but social media is their secret sauce. They have 4.1 million TikTok followers.
At the reception, they huddled with Gabi Butler, the star cheerleader from the Netflix series "Cheer," whom WWE was recruiting (and would later sign). After several minutes, the three women kicked off their heels and filmed a TikTok, with Haley and Hanna dancing and Butler punctuating the clip with a backflip.
The Cavinders then were introduced to Dwight Howard, the eight-time NBA All-Star and one of several prominent athletes attending SummerSlam. After conversation and pictures, the Cavinders proposed a TikTok idea. Standing before WWE logos, Howard stepped in between the dancing twins and shimmied to the side of a 10-second video, which would get 1.8 million views and more than 150,000 likes.
"Never did I think I would see the Cavinder twins dancing with Dwight Howard in front of a WWE sign," read the first comment below the video.
That's precisely the point. The Cavinders' involvement with WWE has clear marketing benefits for both sides. But will the twins ever actually step into the ring?
The Next In Line program of course looks for future WWE superstars, but it's not designed to pressure college athletes into pro wrestling careers. WWE selects athletes with eligibility remaining and goals in their sport, which they can complete before pivoting to the ring. Some NIL participants have a clear path to pro wrestling, like Gable Steveson, the NCAA wrestling champion at Minnesota and Olympic gold medalist, who started training at WWE's performance center in October.
Others, like the Cavinders, are eased into the wrestling world, brought to major events like SummerSlam or this week's Royal Rumble, and introduced to the stars and elements that make up WWE.
"This is super entertaining," Hanna Cavinder said, standing outside a stadium suite at SummerSlam. "I can see why the fan base is so competitive, so loyal, so fun. I can't take my eyes away from it. I don't even know if it's going to be in my future, but if it was, it would be a new challenge, a new chapter. I think people would love to see Haley and I as a tag team.
"A year and a half ago, I would not even have envisioned myself watching WWE. It's incredible what NIL has done for so many athletes."
The branding component drew the Cavinders and WWE to one another. When scouting college athletes, WWE staff looks for those physically gifted enough to handle the rigors of the ring, but who also will thrive with promos, media interviews and in the social media space.
Many college athletes WWE signs to NIL deals come in with substantial social followings. In that space, the Cavinders are unmatched.
"We always like to say the important ability is marketability, and they have clearly demonstrated they are absolute pros," said James Kimball, WWE's senior vice president and head of talent operations and strategy, who oversees the NIL program. "They've dominated the TikTok space, they've dominated the NIL space. So when we're talking about launching our program and trying to create awareness, what better pairing? It's a perfect marriage."
WWE allows the Cavinders to connect with new, non-traditional sporting audiences. Jeff Hoffman, the Cavinders' marketing agent with Everett Sports Management, said the Cavinders' reach within the WWE fan audience went from 15 percent before the NIL agreement to 25% since they signed.
"Now you've got a whole new group of people who didn't know who the Cavinders were, who may not even know they're basketball players, who may only know them from an influence standpoint, but they're part of WWE," Hoffman said. "That is where nirvana happens, because you can stack different audiences with different demographics to say, 'Hey, the Cavinders are interested in this product or service.'"
The Cavinders' two-year NIL deal includes making appearances at WWE events and creating social content. Hanna said she and her sister take "a business mindset" into settings like the prematch reception, recognizing who is around them and the different audiences they can reach by capitalizing on key moments.
They labeled their TikTok with Dwight Howard, "When basketball meets @WWE," with a handshake emoji. WWE's newest talent are trained to think about branding opportunities outside of the ring. The Cavinders are "already wired that way," Kimball said.
"They're coming into this company as absolute, high-level, social media brand vixens," Kimball continued. "Oftentimes, that's something that some talent have to build, and there's a lot of education and resources that go into it. For them, it's natural, which we find hugely valuable."
Before SummerSlam, the Cavinders had never attended a WWE event. They didn't know much about pro wrestling until signing the NIL agreement. They had seen the Bella twins, identical twin sisters who, like the Cavinders, grew up in Arizona (Hanna and Haley are from Gilbert, outside Phoenix).
Signed to WWE developmental contracts in 2007, the Bellas spent more than a decade competing on the sport's biggest stage. They were inducted into WWE's Hall of Fame in 2020 and have grown their brand substantially while away from WWE.
They could become the ideal models for the Cavinders, who, if they do go down the WWE route, hope to compete as a tag team.
"Talk about historical precedence," Kimball said. "If the Cavinders ended up even close to a career of the Bella twins, I think everyone would be very happy. We've talked about it. That's what we're trying to identify. Where's the potential? Where's the archetype for these types of talent we're bringing in?
"The Cavinders have a great opportunity to become something that really differentiates."
The Cavinders' lives have transformed since NIL legislation went into effect on July 1, 2021. They have signed deals with Champs Sports, Boost Mobile, Crocs, Venmo, Core water, GoPuff and dozens of other companies with more to come later this year.
Their calendar outside of basketball and school is filled with fulfilling NIL content responsibilities.
"It's a full-time job, you're constantly working," Hanna said. "It's not just taping a TikTok in 15 seconds. There's a lot that goes behind it."
Hanna and Haley will finish out the season with Miami, and could use an extra year of eligibility in 2023-24. They have thought about playing professional basketball but should have many other career paths, including WWE.
"When that time comes, obviously we will never turn down an opportunity," Haley said. "The WNBA is so exciting, and that's something we've worked for our whole lives. But WWE or another business opportunity could be something in our future as well."
Since SummerSlam, the Cavinders have been focused on basketball and their other NIL pursuits, but in April they are set to visit WWE's Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. They will tour the facility and learn about the training they would go through if they sign developmental contracts with WWE. Haley and Hanna also might attend more WWE events, like WrestleMania and SummerSlam later this year.
WWE has taken similar steps with most of its NIL athletes. Some go on to sign and have already started their pro wrestling careers. Former Northwestern football player Joe Spivak, now known as Tank Ledger, is competing in NXT. Others will never reach the ring.
"Coming into this, there's been no expectation that they do anything physical until post-collegiate eligibility," Kimball said. "We're achieving exactly what both parties set out to do: bring them around the business, expose them to large-scale events, get them around WWE superstars. We'll look to find additional ways to incorporate them in programming and training moving forward."
Like all new WWE talent, the Cavinders would need to master the technical side of wrestling and, in their case, how to apply their athleticism from basketball. The twins are anything but camera shy, but they also would need to develop their WWE personas and learn the wrestling lingo to be as effective in promos as they are on TikTok.
"The biggest leap is the confluence of the marketing needs, the brand expression and then the time commitments to a professional career that is just this, which is very different," Hoffman said. "They've got academics, they've got business and they've got athletics right now. If you're saying, 'This is your career, this is what it's going to be,' that can be much more consuming."
Their biggest advantage is each other and the brand they've built together. Despite typical sibling annoyances, they remain extremely close.
There has been no talk of competing individually. At SummerSlam, they made sure to talk with several tag teams to learn about their experiences.
"She's my best friend," Haley said. "Basketball, business, partnerships, everything with her makes everything so much easier. I'm glad I have her in my corner."
The question is whether they ultimately share a corner of the ring. WWE launched its NIL program to identify potential talent earlier, as many superstars only began their careers in their late 20s.
The Cavinders turned 22 on Jan. 13, so there's plenty of time.
"What's the endgame?" Hoffman asked. "That's part of the mystery. Are they going to be here in the next year? A couple years?"
Whenever their college careers end, the Cavinders will have options. Their content creation skills and their appeal to companies will keep doors open.
"At the end of the day, when a decision is put in front of them, we feel confident we're going to have a seat at that table," Kimball said. "It's beneficial for WWE to partner with the Cavinder twins."