Historically, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has faced debates regarding its status as a sport, particularly compared to traditional competitive wrestling. Recently, WWE has seemed to hop on the NIL bandwagon, as it has signed 15 college athletes to name, image and likeness contracts, after signing Olympic Gold medalist Gable Stevenson to WWE’s first NIL contract in September 2021.
This past summer, the Supreme Court ruled on a decision in the Alston case that permitted collegiate athletes to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness, a concept that had been previously deemed unacceptable by the NCAA. The Supreme Court specifically held that the “NCAA restrictions on ‘education-related benefits’ for college athletes violated antitrust law.” Now that college athletes are capable of collaborating with businesses and using their names to earn NIL compensation, more and more businesses are getting involved, with one of the latest and most notable being WWE.
WWE refers to their NIL program as “Next in Line,” which they established in the hopes of providing a clear pathway from collegiate athletics to WWE. WWE explains its Next in Line program on its website, explaining that “the NIL program aims to enhance the talent development process through collaborative athletes from diverse athletic backgrounds.” WWE’s site goes on to share a quote from WWE’s Executive Vice President of Global Talent Strategy and Development, Paul Levesque, which reads: “The WWE NIL program has the potential to be transformational to our business…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.”
On December 8, 2021, WWE announced its inaugural NIL class of 15 college athletes to join Gable Steveson in the Next in Line program. Interestingly enough, this inaugural class is not limited to collegiate wrestlers, as one may have expected from what is known as “World Wrestling Entertainment.” While there are a few wrestlers in this inaugural class, other athletes (male and female) from sports such as track & field, basketball, and football have also made the cut to be an NIL athlete with WWE. Additionally, these athletes hail from around the country, with schools such as Northwestern, Arkansa, Portland State, and Wake Forest all being named on the NIL athlete roster. WWE announced that all of their athlete partnerships will include access to the state-of-the-art WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida.
In addition to financial compensation, WWE will also be providing various tools and lessons to help these athletes capitalize on their image, including resources to educate the athletes about live event promotion, media training, brand building, communications, and creative and community relations. The WWE explains that when the athletes are finished with their NIL program, some may be offered a contract with WWE, an incredible opportunity for young athletes looking to take their athletic abilities to the next level.
While it has been interesting to see the NIL deals unfold since the decision in Alston, WWE’s NIL program may be one of the biggest and most interesting deals yet. Following WWE’s NIL classes and seeing whether the program is a success over the next few years should be intriguing to collegiate athletes and WWE fans alike. Who knows, maybe we’ll get the next Dwane “The Rock” Johnson from one of these NIL classes.