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On the first day of their first trip to New York City, twin sisters Hanna and Haley Cavinder went into Times Square and saw their names in lights.
Not every tourist is given a shoutout at the crossroads of the world. The Cavinder twins are celebrities, however, and celebrities of a very 2021 vintage: Hanna and Haley are Fresno State basketball players whose impressive success on the court is dwarfed by their clout on social media, where the two have developed a combined audience of millions on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
“Just using the twin thing, because people love that, to our advantage, trying to connect with our audience as best as possible,” Hanna Cavinder told USA TODAY Sports. “We never thought it would lead us to a Times Square moment, but it kind of happened.”
Few student-athletes were as prepared for the new world of college athletics created by name, image and likeness legislation and policy, which shattered the longstanding amateur model by granting athletes the ability to capitalize on their popularity through endorsement deals and service contracts.
Within hours of NIL rights going into effect last week, the Cavinders announced deals with Boost Mobile, the national wireless brand responsible for the digital billboard in Times Square; Gopuff, a delivery service popular on college campuses; and Six Star Pro Nutrition, a supplement company.
"It was crazy to see that such a known company wanted to work with Hanna and me," Haley Cavinder said of the Boost Mobile contract. "It was a pretty surreal moment."
Already, athletes across almost all sports, men and women, have shared posts, pictures and videos announcing partnerships with sweet-tea distributors, fireworks companies, local restaurants and more.
While every athlete has access to this compensation, it's the Cavinders who serve as the face of NIL's impact on amateur sports. With national endorsements already signed and other deals in the works, the rising juniors have obliterated any preconceived notions that the athletes best prepared for NIL success are males starring in revenue-earning sports in the biggest conferences in the country.
And while accomplished athletes — Haley was last season's Mountain West player of the year and both sisters are two-time all-conference picks — the Cavinders show how the top earners from NIL may come from outside the mainstream as long as they reach an audience that extends beyond athletics.
"Everybody’s always talking about Power Five schools," Hanna Cavinder said. "We don’t go to the Power Five school. We’re not the quarterback. That’s just something that we’re very, very passionate about, to be a part of this journey."
Said Haley Cavinder, "You can build your brand if it’s something that connects with an audience. Anyone can do it. There’s no secrets to it."
Incoming Tennessee State freshman basketball player Hercy Miller, the son of rapper and entrepreneur Master P, will be a brand ambassador for technology company Web Apps America, in a four-year deal worth $2 million. Nebraska volleyball player Lexi Sun struck a deal with an apparel company, REN Athletics, to design her own line of clothing.
The most-followed athlete at Iowa State is wrestler David Carr, the reigning 157-pound national champion, who has nearly twice as many followers on Twitter and Instagram as Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy. Minnesota wrestler Gable Steveson is the most-followed current Big Ten athlete on Instagram with more than 246,000 followers.
More so than just reaching a sizable number of eyeballs, the athletes with the most effective NIL draw have crafted the right sort of audience: young, brand-savvy and drawn to personality above athletic achievement.
"I think social media 'clout' is a dangerous thing unless a brand does its homework and really knows what the engagement of the individual is with their community," said sports media consultant Joe Favorito.
"Size does not matter anywhere as much as involvement and activation. We are in a world where the best brands are bringing on individuals who know their audience and can help drive awareness, whether that is for a cause or for a product."
The Cavinders declined to disclose the terms of the deal with Boost Mobile, which touts more than nine million customers under the umbrella of Dish Wireless, the nation's fourth-largest wireless carrier.
"Me and Hanna try to be private people about stuff like that," said Haley Cavinder, who also has more than 260,000 followers on her individual Instagram account.
Gopuff offered endorsements to every athlete with an account on Opendorse, which has contracts with more than 100 college programs. Six Star Pro Nutrition has also signed Illinois basketball player Edgar Padilla, a rising sophomore walk-on whose father, also named Edgar, had his appearance for Massachusetts in the 1996 men's Final Four vacated after teammate Marcus Camby was found to have accepted improper benefits.
In all, the Cavinders' current endorsement deals could bring in as much as $600,000 a year through branded posts and other forms of advertising content. That total would exceed Fresno State's contract with women's basketball coach Jaime White, who made $471,577 in the 2019-20 fiscal year, according to the school’s financial report.
The Cavinders' audience exploded during the coronavirus pandemic, when the pair built a TikTok account incorporating basketball, dance moves and other trends on the video-sharing social network, where they have more than 3.3 million followers. The Cavinders will spend about an hour a day crafting TikTok posts, they said, and another three hours a week filming, editing and posting videos on YouTube, where the twins have more than 67,000 followers.
"Eventually, it was just kind of a domino effect," Hanna Cavinder said.
With NIL rights on the horizon for months, the Cavinders "were just trying to be patient as best as possible and continue to make content for fun, because honestly, we’re very passionate about it and love doing that," Hanna Cavinder said. "We definitely were trying to prepare ourselves for when the time came."
Among the many unknowns surrounding NIL's infancy is whether athletes outside of the mainstream have the brand power and staying power to capture and recapture consumers, or whether companies would be better served capitalizing on mere trendiness — for example, the breakout player from a prime-time football game — instead of relying on an existing social-media audience.
Despite their on-court success, the Cavinders fit into the latter category; Fresno State hasn't reached the women's NCAA tournament since 2014 and has never advanced out of the first round, depriving the twins of the sort of March Madness moment that could expand an already sizable online following.
"Just saying 'I have X followers, pay me,' may work at first, but it is going to ring hollow very soon when it is discovered that the opportunity is not authentic and the (return on investment) is not there," Favorito said.
"It’s not easy, and even if there is an opportunity, brands have literally thousands of people to choose from to spend money. Ask Olympians how easy it is to create and get paid with deals, especially ones just based on social engagement. Be careful what you are asking for."
The unsettled questions circling around NIL can't overwrite the symbolism behind the Cavinders' growing celebrity. For female athletes and athletes in non-revenue-generating sports, the twins show how the spotlight cast by NIL rights has the potential to highlight those outside the mainstream.
"I just think that there’s always been talk about men being superior to women in all these deals," Haley Cavinder said. "This is just a prime example of us leading the way and showing young girls that look up to us that they can do this and they can make a profit off NIL just like men can."
Added Hanna Cavinder, "I just think with the NIL passing, having so many amazing female athletes be able to profit and benefit off their name, image and likeness is incredible. We’re excited to be part of that because that’s obviously very important to us."
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: TikTok dances help Cavinder twins become face of name, image, likeness