Why women and social media stars are becoming college sports’ big winners

Audience Engagement
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In the early hours of 1 July, an Uber crossed into Manhattan, carrying a pair of 20-year-old twins who’d never before seen the bright lights of New York City. After an excruciating day of travel, they were set to arrive at their hotel around 3am Somehow, though, the twins were giddy. They laughed and chatted as they rode, talking about Times Square and a deal they had just signed.

The twins figured their driver was eavesdropping, and they didn’t care. They figured he found the conversation strange, confusing. And really, they did too – so Haley and Hanna Cavinder can forgive the driver if he wondered: Who on earth are these women?

They are identical twins, rising college juniors, guards on Fresno State’s basketball team, TikTok stars. And on 1 July, they became the first college athletes to legally sign a major endorsement deal under the NCAA’s new name, image and likeness (NIL) regulations. The rules mean that college athletes can now earn money from sponsorship or public appearance, something that was previously forbidden (universities are still prohibited from paying them salaries).

And in New York, after only a few winks of sleep, the twins would arrive in Times Square to see their deal with Boost Mobile (one of three they inked in the first hours of college sports’ NIL free-for-all) flashed on a massive billboard. They’d bounce from interview to interview. And, of course, they would post photos and videos from the scene.

Less than two years after they filmed their first TikTok video, the Cavinders have become the faces of the NIL movement, which is redefining what it means to be a college athlete. In 2019, the year the twins enrolled at Fresno State, California passed a law that prohibited schools and governing bodies from punishing athletes for profiting off their name, image and likeness. Soon, 20 more states followed suit, and in April 2020 the NCAA, the main governing body of US college sports, under intense pressure set in motion the process of changing NIL rules. It was the first concrete step toward economic freedom in college sports – but it was impossible to predict how the new normal would take shape. Would dollars fall easily to football and men’s basketball stars and leave women and athletes in smaller sports scrambling for loose change? Would jersey sales drive profits? What brands would bite?

One fact, though, seemed certain: social media would play a huge role in this new economy. In fact, it had already helped force the NCAA’s hand. “The rise of social media … has dramatically increased the opportunities for college students to make commercial use of their NIL,” the NCAA board of governors wrote in a report in April 2020. “Current divisional rules on this subject… can prevent student-athletes from engaging in NIL-related activities that their nonathlete peers on campus frequently pursue.”

In other words, while models or musicians who were at college could earn large sums from their social media followings, athletes were forbidden from bringing in even a single cent.

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In March 2020, the Fresno State women’s basketball team entered the Mountain West Tournament as the top seed, and they played their way into the finals before losing to Boise State. When they returned to campus, it was with every intention of playing in the women’s NCAA tournament – the biggest event on the college basketball calendar – later that month.

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted those plans, and by the middle of the month, Haley and Hanna Cavinder had returned home to Phoenix, where they quarantined with their parents and three sisters and finished their freshman-year coursework. Soon, they were bored, and in search of entertainment, they logged into the TikTok account, @cavindertwins, they’d created. The twins weren’t prolific on the app, but they’d filmed videos at school and racked up a couple thousand followers. At home, they filmed a video with their sisters, another where they danced outdoors. And then, on 23 March, Hanna had an idea. “I just told Haley to come up one day and to do dribble beats to a sound on [TikTok],” she says. “And it kind of just went from there. Our audience loved it, and it was a domino effect for the rest of our social media accounts.”

The dribbling video went viral, and four days later, the twins posted another. (Those first two videos now have 2.1m views each) By the end of May, they estimate, they had one million followers on TikTok (that number is now up to 3.5m), and their Twitter and Instagram audiences were growing at warp speed. “I just think people really like twins,” Hanna says, laughing.

When the twins shot that first dribbling video, they were aware the NIL landscape would shift someday, perhaps during their college careers. A month later, when the NCAA working group released its report, they began to suspect changes would come more quickly. But the timeline remained unpredictable; the NCAA delayed a planned vote, the US supreme court got involved, and it was only in the weeks leading up to 1 July that athletes like the Cavinder twins realized their lives were about to change –imminently.

For the twins, filming videos, uploading them and watching the likes pile up was one thing. Managing a business as a paid influencer is another. So earlier this year, Haley and Hanna enlisted their older sister to manage their business. They also hired an attorney who helped them with all three major deals they signed that first week: the Boost Mobile sponsorship as well as contracts with Gopuff and Six Star Nutrition.

And it is athletes like the twins who stand to benefit the most from the NIL rules. Unlike big name basketball and football stars, they will not go on to lucrative professional sports careers. Once they graduate they won’t even have a college team to boost their brand so making the most of their following now is vital in financial terms.

“We’re not at a [big name] school,” Haley says. “We’re not male athletes. So kind of just shows the younger generation, it doesn’t matter what gender you are or sport you play, you can make a brand for yourself.”

In the first 24 hours after the NIL rule change, college athletes signed thousands of deals to promote companies of all sizes on social media. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix posted an Instagram ad for Milo’s Tea. Trey Knox, an Arkansas wide receiver, posed with his husky, Blue, outside of Petsmart; he’d just signed a deal to endorse the store. Runza, a Nebraska fast-food joint, signed 100 athletes at schools in the state to deals to promote its app.

“For the huge majority of student athletes, they will never be more popular, more famous, more influential than they are [in college],” says Sam Weber, the director of brand marketing and communications at Opendorse, a company that connects athletes with marketing opportunities. “So there’s an opportunity for the kid that – maybe they have 5,000 followers on Instagram. That’s not huge, but they can still earn a couple hundred bucks a month getting support from local businesses.”

In the near term, smaller deals focused on social media posting will most likely drive the market for athlete endorsements. Larry Mann, the executive vice president of rEvolution, a sports marketing firm, said in July that big brands – think Amazon or Pepsi – aren’t yet ready to turn to college athletes for marketing campaigns; the NIL landscape is still evolving too quickly, and the rule change is too new. But mid-size and smaller companies – which often have less traditional marketing aims – will seize upon athletes with an audience. And that doesn’t always mean they’re seeking out the players who are likely to become stars in professional sports. Mann points out that college sports are a regional brand, full of tribalism and local ties. So smaller businesses might see big wins from working with a star wrestler or volleyball player, or even a third-string defensive end. If they can build a network of followers, they can profit.

But less than two months into the new NIL landscape, it’s impossible to know the extent of those profits. Still, that’s not stopping the projections. Last year, FiveThirtyEight published Opendorse’s estimates of what a few athletes might be able to make in an open market. It forecast that UConn basketball star Paige Buekers, still in high school at the time, might be able to pull in upwards of $600,000 per year. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, had NIL rules changed while he was still at Clemson, might’ve been able to pull in more than $400,000 annually. And the data projected that Patrick Glory – don’t worry, it’s okay if you’ve never heard of him – a Princeton wrestler, could net about $2,500. Recently, Opendorse officials projected the NIL industry as a whole to gross $500m in 2022, $1bn in 2023.

Mann, the marketing executive, has seen those numbers, and he cautions against locking into projections so soon. Too many rules around NIL and social media (and NIL in general) are still solidifying, and though companies like Opendorse provide an efficient marketplace for athletes and companies to connect, it’s still too soon to say how the industry will take shape. Plus, to assume that athletes linking with brands for social media promotion is the endpoint of this grand experiment would be a massive oversimplification.

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Almost 1,000 miles north of Fresno, in Pullman, Washington, Dallas Hobbs had racked up about 2,500 Instagram followers by the time of the NIL rule change, and he had roughly the same size audience on Twitter. The Washington State defensive lineman isn’t an influencer. He’s not clamoring for brand partnerships. No attorney negotiates his paydays. But on 1 July, he was as thrilled as the Cavinder twins.

For years, on top of attending school and playing football, Hobbs has been working as a graphic designer. Over time, he has figured out the best way to market himself without raising the NCAA’s ire – but now, finally, he doesn’t have to be quite so crafty. The loosening of arcane rules about athletes’ social media will help Hobbs build his business career at the same time as he finishes his football career with the Cougars.

Back in 2016, when Hobbs committed to the University of Connecticut, he designed his own announcement graphic to post on social media. He’d always been artistic, and he was pleased with the results. Soon after, a friend in his recruiting class asked if Hobbs would design a graphic for him, and word got around. “I started doing designing on my phone, actually on just a phone with my finger,” he says. Two months later, he and most of his class decommitted after a coaching change, and when he committed to Washington State, he inherited a new group of teammates –or clients. “And then it continued to the next [recruiting] classes, and it just kept going on and on. And then it branched out to people committed to other schools. That’s where I started falling in love with graphic design.”

Hobbs registered as a digital technology and culture major and set his sights on a career in design. Five-star recruits from across the country sought out his design services. (He names Oregon linebacker Justin Flowe as one of his highest-profile clients.) But the NCAA forced him to make a decision: If he wanted to promote his work on his personal social media pages, the ones that identified him as a Washington State lineman, then he’d have to work for free. And if he wanted to get paid, he’d have to rely on word of mouth.

At first, Hobbs took the paychecks, tiny as they were. Hobbs Designs earned $5 here, $10 there. Eventually, though, the lineman realized he was doing his future career a disservice. If he wanted to work in design, he needed a public portfolio and a better way to get his name out into the design world. He needed to be able to acknowledge when a five-star recruit used his service, to post about it on Twitter or Instagram.

“I just wanted to grow as Dallas Hobbs, have a portfolio,” he says. “I started getting into sports design, connecting with some other graphic designers. … I needed something to show for, like, hey, this is who I am.”

So Hobbs decided that working for free was the best way to invest in his future. He began to take credit publicly for his work and gain a reputation in the field. Last year, a group of businessmen in Washington reached out and asked Hobbs to make them a logo. They were impressed with his work, and as their plans developed, they asked him if he’d like to have an ownership stake in their project, a brewery that’s set to open in Spokane. Hobbs was thrilled and signed on as the brewery’s director of marketing and design – but there was one drawback: He couldn’t promote it, couldn’t so much as mention it in an interview or post a press release on his Instagram.

His job was, in effect, a secret. But on 1 July, everything changed. Hobbs got in touch with compliance officers at Washington State, and after some back and forth – there was a bit of red tape due to the nature of what a brewery sells –he was granted permission to go public. He also was, in an instant, able to charge for his freelance design services again.

“Everyone thought it was going to be the jersey sales and like big time sponsorships, and [really], you can get on YouTube, you can get on social media and you can take on small businesses, you can get a little bit here and there,” Hobbs says. “Not everyone’s concerned about getting a sponsorship with, like, AT&T or these big names. We just wanted to make some type of income, because we’re on a busy schedule, and that’s the easiest way that we can work for the future right now.”

Hobbs, who’s been a vocal proponent of economic fairness in college sports, is thrilled to get a chance to profit off the rule change. He won’t get a billboard in Times Square, won’t get adoring comments from millions of fans when he posts about his dinner or his girlfriend or his latest workout. And that’s fine. Because for every Haley or Hanna Cavinder, there are many more Dallas Hobbses, athletes who just want to make the most of the audience that comes with athletic excellence, who want control over their voices and the power to benefit from whatever they’re saying, singing, signing, selling.

“This is going to build a spotlight and create things for a lot of these athletes that weren’t able to have that spotlight,” Hobbs says. “They’re able to generate their own spotlight now.”

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