FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – It is 2:20 p.m., and Darren Heitner hasn’t eaten lunch.
Any attempt at such has ended with his talking around parcels of chicken salad while juggling phone conversations.
On Wednesday, the eve of college athletes’ most liberating day, Heitner represented an image of this new, untapped space. From his three-story, waterside condo, the Florida sports attorney fielded requests from brands, agents and marketers roaring to get into this arena, where, suddenly, more than 400,000 NCAA athletes are now on the market.
Heitner just so happens to be orchestrating, in an unofficial capacity, what is believed to be the most significant Day 1 contract of any college athlete—twin sisters Hanna and Haley Cavinder, women’s basketball players at Fresno State and, even more notable, mavens on social media.
“They really want to do the deal with you,” Heitner politely asserts in a phone call with a brand representative, “but they have concerns.”
The twins can be choosy. Eventually, the Cavinders entered into two endorsement deals, one with Six Star Pro Nutrition and another with Boost Mobile—the latter a whopper of a deal by college standards. Financial details are not being disclosed, but as an educated guess, the two contracts combine to pay the twins well into the five figures.
With about four million followers on TikTok and Instagram, the twins stand to make much more along the way. The estimated annual gross income for a social media influencer is about 80 cents per follower, according to one advertising standard. That’s roughly $3 million in deals yearly.
Already, more agreements are rolling in.
“We’ve got another deal going live tomorrow,” Heitner says.
If Thursday’s immediate windfall showed anything, it’s that women athletes with large social media followings will amass even more cash than your favorite quarterback or receiver. In fact, LSU gymnast Olivia Dunn, also with millions of followers on IG and TikTok, was in New York City as well, poised to soon strike what may be the biggest of all college athlete deals.
The Cavinders, meanwhile, are making their rounds in the big city, posting photos and videos from Times Square on their social media platforms, part of their newly minted endorsement contracts, both of which were approved by Fresno State and officially signed Thursday.
During their first trip to Manhattan, the Arizona natives spoke to Sports Illustrated on Thursday morning while moving from one appearance to another. There’s ESPN’s Outside the Lines, CBS News, Good Morning America, NBC and later, Time magazine.
“I don’t think it’s hit me,” says Hanna. “It’s shocking. It’s unreal. I’m in New York for the first time!”
And to think, this all started through a bit of quarantine dancing.
“We were really bored at home during COVID,” says Haley. “Hannah had her own TikTok, and she said, ‘Start making dances with me.’ We did.”
Scores of followers later, here they are—the faces of a seismic day in college athletics, where, already, hundreds of athletes have struck deals after the NCAA lifted its ban on athlete compensation. They range widely. Many are small, single bookings for appearances or social media posts. Others are longer-term contracts to be the face of a regional or local business.
And then there are the national deals for people like the Cavinders, who connected with Boost Mobile by using the digital marketplace ICON Source, one of many such companies in this new space, pairing athletes with brands like a dating app matches couples. Heitner facilitated the contracts and helped land the additional arrangement with Six Star.
The 36-year-old Heitner, a passionate activist for player rights, has seen his star rise as the NCAA’s rules crumbled. In fact, he helped author the Florida state bill that allows athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness—one of 24 state statutes across the country that forced the NCAA to adjust its amateurism rules.
On Wednesday, at the 11th hour, brands and agents rushed into the space. Heitner fielded one call after another, after another.
“It’s been nuts,” Heitner says between bites and calls, his dog, Charli, a female spaniel-poodle mix, at his feet. “All big brands are going to feel like they missed an opportunity.”
On Wednesday at the Heitner home, one business deal for the Cavinders fell through and another was struck; the parents of a couple of potential clients called, one from the Florida football team and another from UCF baseball; one agent called asking for advice and another wanted to vent.
“Do you know any college athletes in the L.A. market?” asked one, who represents a beverage company wanting to add college stars to an endorsement contract that already features some of the biggest NBA players in the game.
“They’ll pay five figures,” he tells Heitner.
In between the actual work calls were interviews with radio shows, print media outlets and a talk with his 94-year-old grandmother.
“No, Grandma, I don’t get bothered by the rainy weather—I don’t get pains,” he says through the phone, a lighthearted conversation on a whirlwind day.
Heitner slept for about four hours before waking at 5:30 a.m. to do this all over again. That’s more sleep than the Cavinders got.
On the eve of the biggest day of their lives, they endured a hellish travel trek from Michigan, where they were visiting family, to New York City. It included seven hours of delays, five hours of driving and four hours on a plane. At one point, they could see New York City below them but couldn’t land, circling for an hour above Manhattan on Wednesday night because of weather.
“The pilot came on and said, ‘We have to land in Pennsylvania,’ ” says Hanna.
They drove from there, pulling into New York City at 2 a.m.—a 17-hour travel day behind them and a 22-hour day ahead of them.
“We got two hours of sleep,” says Haley.
How are they managing? Haley laughs.
“A lot of coffee.”
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