Hannah Cavinder stands on a folding chair in the Fresno State locker room while her twin sister, Haley, lies on the floor. Both are wearing Bulldog women’s basketball jerseys. The music starts. For 12 seconds, they dance to TisaKorean’s LSD song, which is supposed to be about breakfast cereal. A mistake in the locker room.

On TikTok, the video has over a million views.

Almost every day a new twin appears, dancing, lip-synching, dribbling or shooting, and each twin has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

The twins aren’t a household name among basketball fans and don’t play for a top program, but their meteoric rise on social media – they have 2.7 million followers on TikTok – has made them stars far beyond their sport. They lead Fresno State, but now that the NCAA is allowing athletes to benefit from sponsorships, it’s not a statistic, but a consistent tally that could lead to money.

The Cavinder twins together, said Blake Lawrence, CEO of marketing firm Opendorse, have almost as much influence as Trevor Lawrence in terms of value.

When your student manager hands you a trophy and you think it’s Gatorade…. #wilsonbasketball

: via haleycavinder & hannacavinder pic.twitter.com/1OBQrywBPP

– Wilson Basketball (@WilsonBasktball) February 18, 2021

The NCAA currently prevents athletes from benefiting from sponsorship deals, but this summer marks the dawn of a new era of naming, branding and likeness (NIL) rights, and Heisman finalists or March Madness heroes won’t be the only ones to benefit. The Cavinder sisters are just one example of a growing group of predominantly female athletes whose social media fame and commercialism overshadow their athletic glory.

According to Opendorse, the twins have a potential total income of more than half a million dollars a year from their many online fans – and they’re not the only ones. From volleyball star Lexi Sun, Nebraska’s most consistent athlete, to Olivia Dunn, LSU’s freshman gymnast whose nearly 5 million followers on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok may make her one of the most valuable brands in college sports, women are fighting a persistent narrative that shines the spotlight on major men’s sports.

Olivia Dunn, a freshman gymnast at LSU, has nearly 5 million followers united on social media, but has failed to capitalize on them. AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman

Of the 30 most popular college athletes, only 16 are from the revenue-generating sports of men’s soccer and basketball, according to Opendorse, while more than a third of the list is made up of women. A new Temple University study suggests that women and athletes who play non-paid sports, such as rowing or volleyball, would earn, on average, about the same as those who play football or basketball.

2 Connected

The opportunity for athletes like Dunn or the Kavinder sisters to make a lot of money in the NRL is not just theoretical. At the NAIA level, athletes are already benefiting from a broad expansion of NIL rights, including Aquinas volleyball star Chloe Mitchell, who turned a self-improvement project into an online brand.

The Cavs haven’t yet considered the future of professional basketball at Fresno State, but they are well aware of the lucrative future the NLI can offer.

We are approached by companies every day, said Haley Cavinder, who was named Mountain West Conference basketball player of the year on Sunday. It’s crazy to think you can make a living at it.

In the past, the NCAA has avoided allowing direct payments to athletes for sponsorship deals, but recently dozens of states have begun to force the NCAA to do so through legislation, including a Florida law set to take effect this summer that would allow college athletes in that state to make money off their name, image and likeness. The NCAA hopes to set its own general NIL rules rather than deviate from individual states, but decided in January not to clarify them, instead waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on an antitrust lawsuit to give athletes NIL rights. (The Supreme Court is expected to hold a hearing in March and a decision is expected in the summer.) Meanwhile, the federal government is also discussing possible legislation that could open the floodgates to approving transactions across the country.

NCAA officials, athletics directors and coaches have all made various arguments against NIL reform, including concerns about the possibility of contention between high and low income athletes, schools twisting the intent of the rules to gain a recruiting advantage and separate NIL revenue from donations that could have gone to the school itself. One of the NCAA’s main arguments was that the NIL would shift the revenue the school currently distributes to sports with fewer fans and that the money would instead go only to top athletes.

But Mitchell, an NAIA volleyball player, said she already sees the future, and the NIL only brought more attention to her, her teammates and Aquinas volleyball.

When the pandemic disrupted Mitchell High School, she joined many other bored people and cobbled together a small repair shop in her parents’ backyard in Michigan, keeping track of her progress on TikTok. The videos went viral and their audience quickly grew to over 2 million followers.

Companies quickly caught on, and last June Mitchell partnered with a technology company called Smart Cups, which sponsored a series of videos in which she created a campfire lounge in her parents’ backyard. The partnership was a success and other ads followed.

But this whole effort could have ended as quickly as it had begun. When she went to college, Mitchell planned to play volleyball, and the rules did not allow her to earn income from endorsements. But Mitchell arrived in Aquinas at the perfect time. Last October, the NAIA revised its rules for the NIL, and in December she became the first athlete to be licensed – a golf club demonstration on the miniature golf course she had built for her father at their home.

It’s the American way to use your gifts and talents, Mitchell said. I couldn’t be more excited to be an NAIA athlete because we performed better than the NCAA.

If the NCAA approves NIL rights, which seems inevitable, it’s possible that some top athletes could earn more than $1 million a year in sponsorship deals, says Casey Schwab, CEO of Altius Sports Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in NIL legislation for athletes, coaches and schools, adding that the benefits won’t be limited to the sport’s biggest stars.

A new study from Temple University’s School of Sports, Tourism and Hospitality Management shows that the potential for non-trivial income is greater on average for female than for male college athletes, and that athletes who don’t play the sports that make a lot of money, such as football and basketball, can still build valuable brands.

College athletes] attract a specific, targeted audience from a demographic standpoint, said Dr. Tylo Kunkel, author of the Temple study. They become very effective endorsers, and it may not be the next national shampoo ad, but companies are more focused on building brand awareness and connecting with the public.

Kunkel’s study found that athletes who don’t play revenue-generating sports, such as football and basketball, can still make about $5,000 a year with just 10,000 followers on various social media platforms. Engagement is key, so value will depend more on content and frequency of new posts than actual success in the field.

According to Schwab, even athletes with few social media users will have some value. He calls it a do-gooder group, athletes who can get some free pizza at a local restaurant in exchange for posting a photo with the owner on Twitter.

With 3.7 million followers on TikTok and another million on Instagram, Dunn, an LSU gymnast, has the second-largest online following of any current college athlete (Sharif’s son Shaquille O’Neal, No. 1), according to the Opendorse tracker, but so far he hasn’t generated a single dollar in revenue, and every day the NCAA delays promoting NIL reform costs him money. And unlike football and basketball stars, who typically make millions as professionals, the most lucrative years for many athletes are outside of sports revenue, during college.

The opportunities offered by social media are certainly time-sensitive, she said. There is no professional sport for gymnastics, so I want to make money while I can, right? I feel like [male athletes] don’t have the same opportunities as me, so it’s a little unfair.

The boys @livvydunne finally checked out the Tiktok (you should go for our Tiktok queen) pic.twitter.com/MtGQbjd1Y0

– Lucy (@weswingin) May 30, 2020.

Schools are anxiously awaiting the details of NIA reform, but many are proactively preparing their athletes for the inevitable changes by seeking advice from outside firms like Opendorse and Altius, hoping to get ahead of the new rules.

Dunn recently participated in a discussion with LSU student-athletes about the NIL, but she is far from an expert. Her approach to the job is fun and engaging, but if she could make money from all those posts, her job would be much harder.

Opendorse shares tips for developing social media content and uses data to explain what types of posts drive engagement to maximize sales. Altius takes a broader approach and works with athletes on marketing opportunities that go beyond social media, such as appearances, training camps and even television commercials. At the same time, some schools are considering using NIL as a way to introduce athletes to business, finance and even taxes.

At Fresno State, Opendorse is working directly with the Cavinder sisters in anticipation of the new NIL legislation, and AD Terry Tamei said he thought it was a smart investment that fits the student-athlete model perfectly by combining success on the field with real business lessons.

We all see the experience of transformation in academia, Tammy said. So how can we as an athletics department get involved? We’ve been very active here. Teaching people how to improve their brand is no different than someone going to business school and learning how to market a particular product.

Nebraska volleyball star Lexi Sun is studying for her NIL. Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Nebraska senior volleyball star Lexi Sun received an extra year because of COWID-19, allowing her to earn NLIs late in her career. With over 70,000 followers on Instagram, she saw an opportunity and has now immersed herself in NIL and is working towards a master’s degree in advertising and public relations, two goals that fit together perfectly.

It’s pretty cool to hear firsthand what goes on behind the scenes, Sun said. And since social media plays such an important role in almost every business, it’s very useful.

Mr. Mitchell, on the other hand, envisions a career that goes far beyond paid support.

Last June, Mitchell and his father, Keith, began talking about developing a platform that would connect college athletes with NIL opportunities. They called it PlayBooked, and the idea is a cross between a job board, a dating app, and Cameo, a video-sharing site that lets fans pay for celebrity reviews. PlayBooked works with companies, small businesses and even fans who want to communicate with college athletes. These athletes can then choose which options they want to use. For Mitchell, it’s about giving athletes the tools to develop their own brand.

PlayBooked’s first partnership paired the clothing company with 10 other Aquinas athletes, and other deals followed, with NAIA athletes receiving between $30 and $100 for their social media posts. This is just the beginning, Keith Mitchell said. PlayBooked already works with 200 NAIA athletes, but plans to expand functionality this spring with the goal of reaching more than 5,000 athletes by the end of March.

We’re trying to connect the two dots: pay the athletes and publicize the company, Chloe Mitchell said. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

In January, Clemson football goalie Hensley Hunkaff sent an email to Jonathan Gantt, the assistant athletics director who prepared the school for the NIL Act. His social media presence was sparse – about 1,000 on Twitter, 4,000 on Instagram and just over 7,000 on TikTok – but as the changes at NIL approached, Hankuff sought advice on how to improve his online brand.

Clemson has been working with Opendorse since 2015, and Gantt said Clemson sees the NIA changes as an opportunity to stand out on the recruiting trail while giving its athletes the tools they need to succeed in the new situation.

Clemson goalie Hensley Hunkaff is rebuilding his brand all over again. David Platt/Clemson Athletics

Gantt suggested a three-step plan for Hankuff’s social media branding, based on his work with Opendorse.

The first step is to determine the objective. Schwab says he starts every meeting by asking athletes what their branding goals are, and he often gets blank stares, even from professionals. According to Gantt, identifying the driving force of the brand is essential to optimizing the process.

Gantt then advised Hankaff to take stock of what makes his story different from others.

According to her, Hankoof has tattoos and pink streaks in his hair, which speaks volumes about his character. But more than that, she had a story to tell. She was raised by a single mother. She had cancer. She came from Villanova to begin her career with the Tigers.

Finally, Gantt helped Hankuff write a strategic plan for his brand that would allow him to track and adjust his progress.

It’s not a guide to instant fame, and there’s no guarantee she’ll build a brand as valuable as the Cavinder sisters’ or Dunne’s, but Hankuff says she’s excited about the possibilities.

It’s inspiring to be a player and use who I am to make a name for myself, Handcuffs said, and show the world and the younger generation that you can be in college and not have to be Trevor Lawrence to build your brand.

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