Minnesota Student Athletes Cash In On Their Brand Under New NCAA Rules

World Wrestling Entertainment is looking for its next generation of superstars.

And it may not be the traditional type of talent fans have been used to for decades. But it’s a major step in the company’s revamped developmental program.

The sports and entertainment juggernaut has jumped on the NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) bandwagon, signing deals with 16 NCAA athletes from various sports and giving them a more direct road to sports entertainment.

WWE’s self-styled “Next in Line” program will allow “college athletes the ability to monetize their name, image and likeness,” according to Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president of global talent strategy and development.

In a move previously prohibited under NCAA rules, the organization accepted legislation last year that allows college athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness.

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  • By Mike Mooneyham Special to The Post and Courier

WWE is using the rule change to revolutionize its own talent and recruiting program, creating a clear pathway from collegiate athletics to pro wrestling/sports entertainment. The program will compensate the athletes in exchange for social media posts promoting the company.

Athletes thus far signed by WWE come from diverse athletic backgrounds and compete in wrestling, football, basketball, and track and field.

Heading the list is Gable Steveson, an Olympic wrestling gold medalist and a 2021 NCAA wrestling champion at the University of Minnesota, who was signed in September, prior to the formal announcement of WWE’s NIL program.

The deal allows him to finish his senior year at Minnesota and defend his NCAA Division I championship title while learning the ropes for his future WWE career.

In addition to being an NCAA champion, Steveson also is a Dan Hodge Trophy winner, a two-time Big Ten Conference champion (three-time finalist), and a two-time All-American.

“We all saw his physical ability prior to and at the Olympics,” Nick Khan, WWE’s president and chief revenue officer, told ESPN. “What we also saw was that Gable has as much charisma as he does ability. Marketability and ability are both of great importance to us.”

Steveson is only the second Olympic gold medalist to be signed by the company. Kurt Angle, who won a gold medal in 1996, joined WWE four years later.

Angle praised the WWE initiative on a recent podcast.

“I think the Next in Line program is very effective because you’re getting college athletes and a lot of these athletes are going to be world-class athletes," he said. "Those are the kind of athletes you want in professional wrestling. You can be a non-athlete and join a territory and work your way up and still be a great worker. I think it’s a great program and I think you need a little bit of both. You want the old school where you have the territories and the small promotions where you can work, and work on your character, and work on your development in the ring. I think you need a little bit of both of those.”

Expanding talent pool

Like a paid internship for pro wrestling, these new athlete partnerships will feature year-round access to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, as well as training and resources on the business side of the organization including brand building, media training, live event promotion and community relations. After completing the NIL program, select athletes may be offered a full-time WWE contract, Levesque said.

Levesque recently touted the program as a great recruiting tool in an interview with NBC News, pointing out that until now there’s never been a clear path to becoming a WWE star.

“To allow college students to sort of monetize and utilize their name, image, and likeness,” said Levesque. “It has opened up an avenue for us. This allows them to have that open door to earn money while in college.”

Levesque, 52, sees the new NIL program as key to WWE’s future success.

“The WWE NIL program has the potential to be transformational to our business," he said. "By creating partnerships with elite athletes at all levels across a wide variety of college sports, we will dramatically expand our pool of talent and create a system that readies NCAA competitors for WWE once their collegiate careers come to a close.”

Social media stardom

The inaugural class brings together 15 athletes from 13 universities, seven NCAA conferences, and four sports. They will all join Olympic gold medalist Steveson in a group that, for the most part, is focused more on marketability than wrestling ability.

Among those taking part are A.J. Ferrari, a wrestling standout from Oklahoma State, as well as Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twin sisters and juniors on the Fresno State women’s basketball team.

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The Cavinder twins have signed on with WWE’s inaugural Next In Line program. Provided photo

The Cavinders, who have reportedly signed a potential six-figure deal with WWE, see the partnership as a way to expand their audience. In addition to being top scorers on their basketball team, the 20-year-old twins also have a massive social media following, with several million followers on TikTok and Instagram.

The sisters, who were the first college athletes to sign a Name, Image and Likeness deal last summer, are also signed to deals with Boost Mobile, SoFi and EastBay which, according to TIME Magazine, has taken the combined sponsorship income to nearly $1 million.

“The Cavinder twins collectively have almost as big of an influence in terms of value as Trevor Lawrence,” Blake Lawrence, CEO of the marketing firm Opendorse, told ESPN.

WWE reportedly had the sisters in its radar prior to its NIL program, seeing them as possibly following in the successful path of The Bella Twins, models-turned-WWE superstars who were discovered at the 2006 Diva Search.

The Cavinders, however, recently told TIME that they never grew up thinking about becoming pro wrestlers. Still, they say, it’s a good fit for them.

“We definitely didn’t grow up wanting to become wrestlers,” Haley said. “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.”

Schools must still sign off on NIL deals. NCAA amateurism rules previously prevented WWE from aggressively recruiting college athletes. The institutions reportedly have been comfortable with the WWE arrangements thus far.

“I don’t think there’s any concern. It’s just entertainment,” said Hanna. “We love connecting with our fans and bringing our audience to their audience and meshing them all together.”

“I’ve heard it so much over the years … ‘if there had been a pathway, man, I would have gone down that road,'” Levesque said. “We’re creating that path.”

“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,” he added. “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.”

The only other college basketball recruit was six-footer Lexi Gordon of Duke, who is in her final season and transferred from Texas Tech last year.

College football recruits

Of the five college football players selected, one of the more interesting choices was Portland State offensive lineman John Krahn, who may be the biggest college player in the country, listed at seven feet tall and 400 pounds.

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WWE unveiled 15 college athletes who will be among the first to participate in the company’s newly formed NIL program. Provided photo

Dalton Wagner, a starting right tackle at the University of Arkansas, also boasts considerable size at 6-9 and 330 pounds. Wagner is set to return in 2022 for his “super senior” season with the Razorbacks thanks to the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver.

Another SEC product, Glen Logan of LSU, is a redshirt senior listed at 6-5, 305. The defensive lineman was a four-star recruit in the 2016 class out of Destrehan, La.

Joe Spivak, a six-foot, 300-pound defensive lineman at Northwestern, told SI Wildcats Daily that he began to think about WWE as a potential career once he was on campus.

“I started thinking, ‘This could really be perfect,’” Spivak said. “I just love training and athletics and competition so much, and my other love is having a mic.”

WWE has long recruited former college wrestlers and football players, most notably during the period when Jim Ross served as a talent relations executive with the company and Jerry Brisco worked as a talent scout and recruiter.

Among the long list of notables are former NCAA wrestling champion Brock Lesnar, who competed at the University of Minnesota, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a former football player at the University of Miami.

Current Universal champion Roman Reigns (Joseph Anoa’i) played football at Georgia Tech, and former WWE champion Big E (Ettore Ewen) was a defensive lineman at Iowa.

Next In Line signees

The following 15 athletes (nine men and six women) join Gable Steveson in WWE’s first-of-its-kind NIL program:

Carlos Aviles, of Ventura, Calif., a 6-foot-6, 305-pound track and field athlete from Ohio State University

Haley Cavinder, of Gilbert, Ariz., a 5-foot-6 basketball player from Fresno State University

Hanna Cavinder, of Gilbert, Ariz., a 5-foot-6 basketball player from Fresno State University

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  • By Mike Mooneyham Special to The Post and Courier

A.J. Ferrari of Dallas, Texas, a 6-foot, 200-pound wrestler from Oklahoma State University

Lexi Gordon of Fort Worth, Texas, a 6-foot basketball player from Duke University

Aleeya Hutchins of Toronto, Canada, a 5-foot-5 track and field athlete from Wake Forest University

John Krahn of Riverside, Calif., a 7-foot, 400-pound football player from Portland State University

Glen Logan of Kenner, La., a 6-foot-5, 305-pound football player from LSU

Isaac Odugbesan of Lagos, Nigeria, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound track and field athlete from the University of Alabama

Mason Parris of Lawrenceburg, Ind., a 6-foot-2, 275-pound wrestler from the University of Michigan

Masai Russel of Potomac, Md., a 5-foot-5 track and field athlete from the University of Kentucky

Jon Seaton of Hillsborough, N.J., a 6-foot-1, 285-pound football player from Elon University

Joe Spivak of Lombard, Ill., a 6-foot, 300-pound football player from Northwestern University

Dalton Wagner of Spring Grove, Ill., a 6-foot-9, 330-pound football player from the University of Arkansas

Riley White of Hoover, Ala., a 5-foot-6 track and field athlete from the University of Alabama

Reach Mike Mooneyham at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com

Did you know …

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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Provided photo

Well before becoming “The Rock,” Dwayne Johnson, coming off a college football career for the University of Miami, had a few WWF tryout matches in early 1996. But the timing to launch the charismatic young star nationally was not quite right. Johnson, through a well-known liaison in Jerry “The King” Lawler, debuted instead with the Memphis-based United States Wrestling Association using the alias Flex Kavana. As Flex, Johnson gained mat experience and was a two-time tag champion in the USWA. He joined the WWF in the fall as Rocky Maivia — a tribute to both his father Rocky Johnson and grandfather Peter Maivia. After his character went through key changes to emphasize his compelling personality, Johnson called himself “The Rock.” And it all worked out very well since.

— Kenneth Mihalik, a retired educator living in Charleston, can be reached on Twitter @HoldBackTheNite

Were you there?

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Hulk Hogan. WWE Photo

The third annual WWF Royal Rumble took place on Jan. 21, 1990, at the Orlando Arena in front of a sellout crowd of 16,000 and a pay-per-view audience. With the theme of “Every Man for Himself,” the Rumble event consisted of a “who’s who” of mat stars: Andre The Giant, Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, Ted DiBiase (the first entrant), Dusty Rhodes, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, The Ultimate Warrior and the promotion’s world champion, Hulk Hogan, among them. At approximately the 59-minute mark, the Hulkster somehow outmaneuvered both Rick Rude and Mr. Perfect (Curt Hennig), the other remaining grapplers, for the victory. Tension was teased between fan favorites Hogan and Warrior during the contest in order to hype their eventual title showdown at Wrestlemania.

There were plenty of fireworks earlier in the show’s singles matches. Hacksaw Jim Duggan won by disqualification over the Big Bossman when the latter was flagged for using his nightstick after 10 minutes of action. Rugged Ron Garvin applied the scorpion death lock/sharpshooter to defeat Greg Valentine in a “submission only” bout after Garvin seized Valentine’s own shin guard as a weapon against “The Hammer.” Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake and The Genius (Lanny Poffo) went to a double disqualification following a chaotic 11 minutes.

The PPV opener featured the farewell appearance of brothers Jacques and Raymond Rougeau (managed by Jimmy Hart) as a tag team. The duo fell to The Bushwhackers — Luke and Butch — at 13:35. Though Jacques was pinned in this showdown, he would return nearly a year later as a new heel character called The Mountie. Prior to the televised competition, Paul Roma beat The Brooklyn Brawler (Steve Lombardi) for the many folks on hand.

— Kenneth Mihalik, a retired educator living in Charleston, can be reached on Twitter @HoldBackTheNite

Photo of the Week

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Rey Mysterio makes his ring entrance before a WWE match at the North Charleston Coliseum. Leroy Burnell/Provided

Source : https://www.postandcourier.com/sports/wrestling/wwe-opening-doors-for-college-athletes-with-nil-program/article_a51a0584-73dc-11ec-9b50-9f14677f4a77.html

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