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Hanna (left) and Haley Cavinder, 22, became two of the top-earning female college athletes after the NCAA changed its name, image, and likeness (NIL) policy in 2021. (All photos by Scott McIntyre for The Free Press)

The NCAA Has a ‘Hot Girl’ Problem

The Cavinder Twins, the emerging oligarchs of women’s college basketball, aren’t the best players. But they might be the best-looking.

We’re in the Cavinder Twins’ apartment eight floors above the sun-dappled sprawl of South Florida. A blender whirrs, mixing kiwi-yogurt-almond butter smoothies. A photographer takes pictures. A representative from the Twins’ sports-marketing agency, always scouting for content, takes pictures of the picture-taker. And the Twins, a tornado of blonde ponytails and crop tops and selfies, talk to or past each other—a high-pitched swirl of voices woven together in a strangely cohesive harmony. 

Their apartment is sleek, generic, devoid of personal detail. There are no photographs of parents or siblings, no refrigerator magnets, no books (except for quarterback Tim Tebow’s latest meditation on God and the quest for personal meaning).

The Twins—Haley and Hanna, age 22, 5-foot-6—are not really two separate human beings as much as a single, self-contained brand with 6.4 million followers across all platforms, including 4.5 million on TikTok. As of early 2023, the former college basketball-players-turned-full-time-influencers had earned north of $2 million. Since then, they’ve signed endorsements and agreements with companies whose values, they say, align with theirs—including YouTuber Jake Paul’s sports-gambling outfit Betr.

This afternoon, the Twins are debating how they should announce their forthcoming agreement with Bucked Up, which sells energy boosters like Woke AF dietary supplement and Rocket Pop (which “tastes like America,” according to the company website).

“We could just do a TikTok,” Haley says to Hanna, “like, ‘Just finished a workout with our Bucked Up.’ ” She pauses. “Or we could make it organic?” 

Hanna chimes in: “Brainstorm!”

The Twins’ attorney, Darren Heitner, calls their stratospheric rise a “blueprint” for other college athletes trying to cash in on the new, multibillion-dollar market. That market is the result of a 2021 Supreme Court ruling that led the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the 117-year-old organization that governs college sports, with roughly 1,100 member schools nationwide, to change its name, image, and likeness (or NIL) policy—enabling student athletes to cash in on their athletic prowess. 

Before then, student athletes could generate enormous amounts of money for their schools—in 2019, the year before the pandemic, top-tier schools earned nearly $16 billion in media rights, tickets sales, licensing, and so forth from their athletes—while making nothing for themselves. 

Thing is, the athletes now profiting are not necessarily the ones with the most athletic prowess. Or at least that’s the case when it comes to female athletes.

While the Twins are accomplished basketball players—until recently, they played for Division I University of Miami—they’re nowhere near the top of the women’s basketball totem pole. The top players in college women’s basketball—like Keishana Washington at Drexel University or Caitlin Clark at University of Iowa—score close to 30 points per game. In her final year at Miami, Haley Cavinder scored just over 12 points per game; Hanna, just under 4 points. They were good, but not WNBA good.

Hanna Cavinder drives up the court at a celebrity basketball game in Sunrise, Florida. When playing at the University of Miami, she scored fewer than 4 points per game; the female superstars average closer to 30.

“If you look at the NIL girls, the first ones who were getting deals were the blonde girls,” Louis Moore, a sports historian at Grand Valley State University, told The Free Press. The Cavinder Twins, Moore said, have benefited handsomely from “their very blonde, girl-next-door looks,” posting videos of themselves in bikinis and tight-fitting dresses. Lots of their videos hint at the possibility of one twin having a boyfriend. Others wink at the male fantasy of group sex with identical sisters, featuring captions like “when he asks for blonde twins for Christmas” and “I want a girl with a twin sister.”

The Twins get their appeal. And even though they think it’s unfair that the mostly black top scorers in women’s college basketball make less than they do—including Louisiana State University’s Angel Reese and Flau’jae Johnson—that’s not stopping them. 

“Obviously, everyone brings something different to the table. I think that all women should be empowered in a male-dominant world, especially minorities,” Haley says. 

Hanna adds: “I mean, obviously, yes, this is a touchy subject, but I think that we are privileged, in a way. Obviously, we don’t deal with the same things that other women deal with or other people deal with, and that’s just how our world is, and it’s awful.”

Meanwhile, the NCAA is extra-sensitive to the optics. The organization made a point of singling out the Cavinder Twins when, in February, it announced that for the first time in the NIL era, it was fining a member school, the University of Miami, and putting the university on probation for a year—despite men’s college sports being rife with more serious improprieties, and widespread uncertainty about what is permissible. 

“The Miami (Florida) women’s basketball head coach violated NCAA rules when she facilitated impermissible contact between two prospects and a booster,” the NCAA declared in a statement explaining the $5,000 fine. 

NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham declined to comment. 

This didn’t sit well with the Twins, who posted a video February 25 using Chris Brown’s song “Look at Me Now.” 

The video featured the Twins, apparently in a public restroom, looking confused. But the important thing was the caption beneath the video: “dear NCAA, scared that female athletes have value?”

In good, second-wave feminist fashion, the NCAA, by targeting Miami, seemed to be saying it didn’t like women athletes being objectified—and the Twins, being the body-positive twentysomethings they are, replied: Actually, that’s our business model.

“We’re 22-year-old girls,” Hanna says. “I love fitness. I like to showcase my body in a way that makes me feel confident.” 

Haley adds: “Everybody likes to go to the beach and take a picture. I love my morning oats, and I go work out every single day. I want to portray that to my audience and show them that I’m passionate about that. Who are you to judge that?”

The Twins, both former guards at the University of Miami, pose for a selfie with other influencers at a celebrity basketball game in Sunrise, Florida.

Let’s rewind three years.

In the summer of 2020, the Twins were not the Twins but Haley and Hanna Cavinder, and they played basketball for the Fresno State Bulldogs, in California’s Central Valley. Haley was a guard; so was Hanna. 

Like everyone, they spent most of 2020 in quarantine, and, like everyone, they got restless. So, they did the same thing countless teens did. They made a TikTok—their first combined effort. 

The 15-second video featured the sisters bouncing basketballs outside their parents’ home near Phoenix. It was synchronized, and it looked kind of cool, and it was set against the “chicken wing beat,” whatever that is.

Tiktok failed to load.

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On August 8, they posted the video on their new TikTok account—cavindertwins—and it blew up. Since then, it has been liked 3.3 million times, shared more than 48,000 times, and nearly 16,000 people have posted comments.

That was the dawn of the Twins.

They were into basketball and wellness. And Jesus. “At the end of the day, I know who my audience is,” Haley said. “ ‘He’s the audience of one’ is what I always tell myself. That’s who I’m living every single day for.”

But for the better part of a year, they were just a brand. They weren’t a business yet, because they were still college athletes, and the NCAA had long held that students couldn’t make money from their name, image, and likeness, because that would be in conflict with the amateur nature of college sports.

Then, on June 21, 2021, the Supreme Court, in National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston, ruled 9–0 that the NCAA could not bar education-related payments like scholarships to student athletes.

The ruling did not explicitly stop the NCAA barring athletes from profiting from their name, image, and likeness. But it seemed to open the door to a change in policy, especially given Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion in Alston. The NCAA and member schools “maintain important traditions,” Kavanaugh observed. But, he said, that “cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated.”

Nine days later, on June 30, the NCAA changed its NIL policy. Technically, it was a “temporary” change meant to address differences in state laws, but nobody thought there was any turning back the clock. The paradigm had shifted. The Cavinder Twins, like other college athletes, were free to cash in on their audience.

Jason Belzer, the CEO of Student Athlete NIL, a sports agency founded in early 2021 to help college athletes forge sponsorship deals, compared the new era of college sports to the breakup of the Soviet Union, where his family came from.

“You had a country that went from all public, government-owned, to complete privatization, and that’s what ended up creating the oligarchs,” Belzer said. “This is what’s happening in college athletics. You have a $10 billion-plus industry, where the labor was getting basically $0, and now they’re going to have an opportunity to make money.”

The Cavinder Twins did not delay.

On July 1, 2021, the day after the NCAA changed its NIL policy, the Twins announced that they had signed their first endorsement deal with Boost Mobile, a wireless service provider that had targeted younger consumers with advertising campaigns featuring Kanye West and the rapper Ludacris.

In the late summer of 2021, the Twins signed with Greenville, South Carolina–based Everett Sports Marketing—whose clients include the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts and professional golfer Austin Ernst—and over the course of the next several months more deals rolled in: Champs Sports, the WWE, the apparel company Baseline.

Suddenly, Fresno State was starting to feel kind of small. They were looking to play on a bigger stage, somewhere that better matched their ambitions. 

Hanna drinks a smoothie at the South Florida apartment she shares with her sister.

On April 13, 2022, the Twins and their parents had dinner at billionaire John Ruiz’s home in Miami—which the University of Miami’s women’s basketball head coach, Katie Meier, had helped coordinate. In the pre-NIL days, a booster hosting prospectives at his house would have been a big no-no, but in this new, freer, more capitalist era, that was supposedly above board.

That evening, Ruiz, the CEO of a healthcare reimbursement recovery business, tweeted a photo of himself with the Twins and their parents. “Wishing the Cavinder twins all the best in their quest to find their next home to play basketball,” Ruiz said. 

Eight days later, the Twins announced that they were transferring to the University of Miami to play for the Hurricanes in the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference.

Miami was excited. It put out a press release with the Twins’ image on top. Women’s basketball head coach Katie Meier called them “ultra-competitive” and a “perfect fit,” and said she expected they would help the team win at the NCAA Tournament.

The next month, the NCAA launched an investigation into what most everyone in college sports thought was now perfectly legit. Then, on February 24 of this year, the NCAA announced that it was fining the University of Miami and that Meier, the head coach, would be suspended for three games.

Pretty much everyone in the college sports world was shocked. 

“They were trying to make an example of someone, and it’s not surprising that they chose a women’s sport and not a men’s sport”—since men’s sports tend to generate far more revenue—“but it’s like, ‘Really? Could you be more transparent?’ ” Victoria Jackson, a former professional runner endorsed by Nike who now teaches sports history at Arizona State University, told The Free Press.

The next day, the Twins posted their Chris Brown video on TikTok. 

Six weeks after that, they announced that, instead of playing a fifth season, which they were allowed to do to make up for the Covid lockdown, they would be leaving college basketball altogether.

Jackson was unsurprised. “A lot of these athletes, they have one foot in both worlds,” she said, “especially on the women’s side.”

The Twins pose for photos on the red carpet before their celebrity basketball game.

After all, the market favors top male college athletes—like USC quarterback Caleb Williams, with a NIL valuation of $2.6 million, and University of Colorado cornerback and wide receiver Travis Hunter, with a valuation of $1.6 million—and, for the most part, attractive female college athletes. Or, as a source said, “those who are willing to show more.” The female athletes don’t need to keep playing. It’s unclear why they would.

Louisiana State University gymnast Olivia Dunne neatly illustrates this dynamic. Like the Twins, she’s good at her sport, but she’s not heading to the Olympics next year in Paris. And, like the Twins, she’s a button-nose blonde. No surprise, her Instagram is a hit. So is her TikTok, especially this recent video.

Dunne has racked up NIL deals totaling $3.4 million—making her the top-earning female athlete in the NCAA and No. 2 overall. As of this week, she lags behind No. 1 Bronny James, the oldest son of LeBron James who will be playing basketball for USC and is worth nearly $7 million, and she leads No. 3 Arch Manning, a quarterback phenom worth nearly $3 million who is a nephew of former NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning. (Nepotism is clearly another driver of NIL success.)

For Tara VanDerveer, the 69-year-old coach of Stanford’s women’s basketball team, the success of the Twins and Dunne is troubling.

VanDerveer has fought for decades for women to be able to compete on a level playing field with men—to have the same athletic opportunities, to be taken seriously. Now, with all these videos of pretty girls flaunting their bodies, it seemed like a kind of showdown between Boomers and Zoomers. 

“I guess sometimes we have this swinging pendulum,” VanDerveer told The New York Times in an interview late last year, “where we maybe take two steps forward, and then we take a step back.”

When VanDerveer’s comments were put to Hanna Cavinder, she said: “I did see the article. I try not to get involved in controversy like that, because I do think people have opinions, and they’re not going to all like what you do.”

After a moment, she says: “I’m not one to judge her, or another coach. If I’m not going to do that to you, why do you think you can do that to young girls like us and Livvy Dunne? I think that’s just kind of. . . ”

Haley cuts in: “Degrading.”

Hanna: “Degrading women, and I think, in this world, we need more powerful women empowering women. So why are you knocking girls that are being successful?”

Though the NCAA president recently expressed a desire to redefine the NIL policy, the Twins are now free from the organization after graduating this year.

The way their agent, Jeff Hoffman at Everett, saw things, the Twins’ story—from Fresno to NIL to Miami to the WWE and Betr—was really about their evolution from athlete to owner, from playing someone else’s game on someone else’s court in someone else’s uniform to being CEO of their own company. Like Michael Jordan in Air, except without being world-class athletes.

“They were the vehicle—now they’re the destination,” Hoffman told The Free Press. “Going from being the vehicle to being the destination for the audience is a much more valuable proposition for the Twins.”

Since coming to Miami, they have forged profitable agreements with Betr, of course, as well as Caktus AI, Dr. Pepper, and LifeWallet (whose CEO is John Ruiz, the booster).

“The Cavinder Twins are extremely unique,” Ruiz said. “They know the limitations of doing things in a classy way, and it sells, and at the end of the day, you gotta give them credit.”

In other words, there’s the way things are supposed to be, a world in which male and female athletes are genderless machines, and the only thing that matters is how fast, how strong, and how skilled they are. And then there’s the way things really are, a world in which most people who watch sports are dudes with paunches and six-packs of beer. They appreciate girls who can shoot three-pointers, but really, they like girls in bikinis making mindless videos—OnlyFans with a dollop of “wellness.”

As Victoria Jackson, the former professional runner, told The Free Press, everyone knows “sexiness and attractiveness” are critical to scoring NIL deals, and it is “unfair.” It reminded her of her running days. “You would notice that somebody would get a big deal when she was middling, at best, and happened to be good-looking, and a woman who was making Olympic teams and winning national championships was having a hard time getting shoe deals.” 

The Twins are shown around the offices of Betr, one of several companies they’ve recently signed with. So far, the siblings have made north of $2 million.

The NCAA has said precious little about NIL. It is not, most agree, an outward-facing organization. It seems to fashion itself as a government agency, unaccountable to players, coaches, and university administrators. 

On Thursday, NCAA President Charlie Baker, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts, voiced support for a federal law that would regulate NIL deals, including a registry of deals, agents, and contract standards. “[I]t was a big mistake by the NCAA not to do a framework around NIL when they had the opportunity to,” Baker said. The fight over college athletes’ image rights, and who gets to monetize them and how, is not over.

But none of that matters to the Twins now. A few weeks ago, they graduated from the University of Miami. Naturally, they made a TikTok—needling the NCAA—to celebrate.

“Everything will die down no matter what—social media, anything,” Hanna tells The Free Press. “So I think we’re just making sure that we have different passive incomes.”

Now that basketball is done, Haley says, “It’s very inevitable to be like, ‘Oh, how do I stay relevant?’ Is what I’m chasing just likes and numbers to fulfill my happiness? That’s what me and Hanna really, really talk about, and it’s like, ‘Don’t do that.’ You can get in a dark place.” 

Then, she pauses a moment, and for just a nanosecond, the kinetic energy seems to wind down, and there’s a calm, a flickering thought. 

“I don’t want to chase that.” 

Ethan Strauss formerly reported for ESPN. Follow his Substack here

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