NIL is a new way of using big data and artificial intelligence to find sports talent that it calls “real-time scouting” in order to circumvent the flaws of traditional recruiting. However, NIL’s success remains elusive as other teams grapple with how best to use it for their own benefit.
ROSEMONT, ILLINOIS – From his ringside position at Allstate Arena, Joe Spivak watched in astonishment as Seth Rollins lured AJ Styles into a bout for a place on the WrestleMania 38 program (8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Peacock).
Spivak, a defensive lineman at Northwestern from 2017 through 2021 and a team captain last season, was a guest of WWE Raw on Monday. He marveled at the strength and performance of The Miz, Omos, Alpha Academy, Rhea Ripley and Liv Morgan, Styles, and, of course, Rollins, while he sat only feet from the ring.
As Rollins incited Styles and the audience, Spivak commented, “He’s really fantastic with the mike.”
Spivak sees himself walking down the aisle and speaking to tens of thousands of people at WWE events. Spivak was one of 16 collegiate athletes, including six football players, who inked name, image, and likeness agreements with WWE as part of a NIL program announced in December.
NIL is seen by WWE as a means of identifying and developing the next generation of superstars sooner than ever before. More than 50 men and women with collegiate athletic backgrounds will test out for WWE at The Star, the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility in Frisco, Texas, during WrestleMania week. WWE will reveal a new 15-person NIL class in June, which will feature athletes from the top levels of college football once again. Former collegiate sportsmen such as current champion Brock Lesnar (Minnesota wrestling) and recent champ Big E (Iowa Hawkeyes football), as well as prior greats like Stone Cold Steve Austin (North Texas football) and The Rock (North Texas football), have already signed on to the promotion (Miami football).
But there’s a twist to this recruitment. Before attending WrestleMania this weekend at AT&T Stadium, Spivak will spend Wednesday chasing a different dream, one he has pursued since grade school. He will participate in pro day at Northern Illinois University — his pro day at Northwestern was cut short by a pulled hamstring during the 40-yard dash — with possibly another workout next month at Chicago Bears headquarters. Other members of WWE’s first NIL class are on similar tracks, including LSU defensive lineman Glen Logan, who is training for pro day April 6 at the team’s facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Spivak, Logan, and the other NIL signees are expected to make their debut in the ring in the near future, initially at WWE’s Orlando development facility. But only when their NFL chase has come to a conclusion.
Spivak told ESPN, “[Football] was my first passion.” “That was my first dream,” says the narrator. And I need to see it through so that when I go to [WWE], I can be completely focused, have no regrets, and go all-in.
“I’m going to ride this NFL fantasy until the wheels come off, and then I’m racing to Orlando.”
THE WAIT IS WORTH IT FOR WWE, even if it takes years. Despite the fact that the organization has had success with former collegiate athletes, many of them did not begin their professional wrestling careers until later.
Roman Reigns, who finished playing football at Georgia Tech in 2006 before a brief NFL stint, signed with WWE in 2010 and made his roster debut two years later. Bianca Belair ran track at South Carolina, Texas A&M and Tennessee, where she earned academic All-SEC honors three times. But she signed with WWE only shortly after her 27th birthday, in April 2016. She made her ring debut four months later, and her television debut the following May.
Logan and Spivak are both 24 years old. Other collegiate athletes who signed NIL agreements with WWE are younger, such as Olympic gold medalist and WWE’s first NIL signee, Minnesota wrestler Gable Steveson, 21. All of the ex-college athletes competing in this week’s tryouts are under the age of 25.
“We’d want to see that [age] figure come down, particularly in terms of development,” James Kimball, WWE’s senior vice president of global talent strategy and development, stated. “You want that number to be 25, not 30 or 35, the second you join our developing program and then maybe end up on NXT TV and then onto Smackdown or Raw.”
Starting the development process sooner is one method to lower that number. While some wrestlers are quickly promoted to television teams — Bron Breakker, a former Kennesaw State running back, was promoted to NXT in only six months and won the title in less than four months. WWE may begin familiarizing college players with the world of pro wrestling while they are still playing in their sports by identifying and signing them while they are still in school.
WWE invited Spivak to St. Louis for the Royal Rumble in January. Despite being a long-time follower of professional wrestling, Logan will attend WrestleMania for the first time.
“We’re able to build them at a faster pace,” Kimball said. “Bring them to WrestleMania or Raw, give them media training, and have them participate in community activities. All of your earliest business exposures took place while you were still in school. Then you fly down to Orlando and begin your journey.”
Kimball had been in Detroit for the NCAA wrestling finals before sitting with Spivak for Raw. He stood on the mat and saw Steveson win his second college heavyweight championship. However, Kimball was also on the lookout for other prospective NIL targets. WWE will have a regular presence at NCAA wrestling, track and field, and gymnastics championships, as well as continuing to follow college football, which Kimball describes as “a sweet area for us.” WWE announced a deal with INFLCR earlier this month, which works with a number of NCAA colleges and offers access to a big database of players.
According to Kimball, WWE’s wish list for NIL targets is divided into two categories: physical (appearance, size, athleticism, strength) and personality (public speaking, charisma, character range, willingness to be coached).
“Ideally,” Kimball remarked, “you’d want to find a beautiful combination.” “Understanding how to convert actual athleticism from one discipline to a 20-by-20 ring, as well as spatial awareness and timing, are all important. Then there’s the ability to use a microphone to express oneself. Whether you’re a heel or a face, whether you’re big on promo or not, you’ll need to be able to tell a tale at some point in your career.”
WWE, according to Kimball, is “100% supportive” of collegiate athletes finishing their primary objectives before transitioning to the ring. Oklahoma State wrestler AJ Ferrari, who won an NCAA title as a freshman in 2021, was a member of WWE’s inaugural NIL class.
Ferrari is just 20 years old and is still healing from a catastrophic vehicle accident that occurred in January. Before concentrating on WWE, he hopes to win additional NCAA championships and compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“Even if you come to WWE when you’re 23, 24, 25, that’s a tremendous increase over what some of our developing talent has traditionally been,” Kimball added. “Every athlete pursuing their aspirations in their chosen sport has our complete support. The idea is that at college, we will be able to assess them as a prospective talent, and they will be able to judge us.”
Sports, school, and smiling were all highlighted by the Spivaks. Shari and Joe Sr. even had their kids do a “smile check” before they left the home. Joe Spivak Sr. provided this image.
SPIVAK HAS SPENT MOST OF HIS DAYS TRAINING FOR NFL TESTING SINCE THE NORTHWESTERN SEASON ENDED IN NOVEMBER. He spends his nights, though, immersed in WWE.
“I don’t get much sleep,” he said. “I stay up late, watch WWE, and develop commercials. That’s what I’m really interested in.”
Spivak isn’t the most well-known member of WWE’s first NIL class of collegiate players, but he’s the most natural fit. During his last two seasons at Northwestern, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive lineman participated in 47 games, starting 15 of them. He also has the appearance. His strong right arm is covered with tattoos, and a shaved-on-the-sides patch of hair sits atop his head.
Then there’s Spivak’s personality, which he flaunted throughout his undergraduate years. He started by hosting Northwestern’s talent showcases for athletes. Then he got his own YouTube program, dubbed “WOW!” and with a throwback logo of Spivak clutching a bottle of SunnyD. Spivak spoke to a group of incoming students about sports when they arrived on campus in the autumn.
During Northwestern basketball games this past season, he served as an emcee during timeouts. Spivak, a theater major, was planned to perform an independent play at Chicago’s Second City improv and comedy club before the coronavirus outbreak struck.
“It’s certainly interacting with an audience and delivering a message that I enjoy more than anything,” he remarked. “It’s a forgotten art, staring someone in the eyes and talking about something that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about.” Where I believe I’ll stand out [in WWE] is in the promos, speaking, and fan interaction.
“That is the most authentic version of me.”
Spivak has spent his whole life as a performer. He grew up in Darien, Illinois, southwest of Chicago, with his parents, Joe and Shari, and three elder sisters, who were his first friends.
“Girls often put on performances,” Shari said, “and he hopped right in there.” “He became their source of amusement. It was all about the clothing.”
“He’s quite comfortable in front of the camera,” Joe Sr. said.
Sports, school, and smiling were all highlighted by the Spivaks. Shari and Joe even had their kids do a “smile check” before they left the home.
“You have to smile at Mom and Dad,” Joe Sr. remarked, “because it’s the window that lets others know what’s inside.” “Joe is all about positive if you know anything about him. That’s exactly what he’ll aim to bring to the WWE.”
Joe Sr. was a walk-on offensive lineman who went on to become an All-American at Illinois State. His daughters Courtney and Lexi were both swimmers at the University of Illinois and the University of Missouri, respectively, while Jordan was a student at Michigan State. Joe Jr., unsurprisingly, became involved in sports at a young age, particularly wrestling and football.
“Olympic wrestling was my first passion; I began in kindergarten,” said Spivak, who wrestled until his freshman year of high school. “‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘I’m going to be the next Rulon Gardner,’ says the athlete. I’d argue with my closest buddy, Pat Ladd, and say things like, ‘WWE isn’t genuine wrestling, guy.’”
Ladd was a WWE fan who collected action figures and video games. Spivak was soon converted. They imitated their favorite programs while watching them in Ladd’s basement. The Boogeyman (“His entrance was really horrific”), Lesnar (“I’m sporting the boots tonight”), and Mick Foley, whose many personalities — Cactus Jack, Mankind, Dude Love — and knack for performing promos inspire him today, were on Spivak’s list.
Spivak began thinking about WWE while he was in college. Northwestern went to a wrestling event in Nashville before the Music City Bowl in 2018, and Spivak ended himself in the ring with his shirt off and his teammates cheering his name. He reached out to Sean Hayes, the head strength and conditioning coach at WWE’s performance center, via his Northwestern ties. Megan Morant, a WWE journalist who ran cross country at Northwestern, was also interviewed.
Spivak highlighted his chosen future plan when the Big Ten Network featured him in November 2020, stating, “I’m going to play football as long as I can, and then WWE better be ready for an application because that’s what’s coming next.” Last autumn, he contacted Trent Wilfinger, WWE’s senior vice president of talent discovery and development, who was instrumental in the NIL program’s inception. Spivak said that he began sending Wilfinger “an annoying quantity” of promotional material.
“Through my sophomore and junior years, I was essentially just chatting to anybody I could, before NIL was really a thing,” Spivak said. “Regardless, I was determined to make this happen. Until I spoke with Trent, I had no clue they were undertaking [the NIL program]. ‘Oh, fantastic, let’s go!’ said the group.”
Spivak is interested in both the behind-the-scenes and front-facing aspects of WWE. Courtesy Spivak, Joe
LOGAN WAS ONLY FIVE YEARS OLD when he became a WWE fan. He adored Randy Orton and Edge’s bouts and was “heartbroken” when Shawn Michaels retired. Logan, who was born in Kenner, Louisiana, grew up watching TV programs and playing WWE 2K computer games.
He and his pals even practiced their favorite moves on a mattress.
“I considered it when I was younger,” Logan said. “It was just a matter of time until it happened.”
Logan, like Spivak, had a possible road to WWE before the NIL program began. “This man is built for WWE,” football agent Sam Leaf Ireifej believed after investigating Logan on Instagram.
“Really by his look and his attitude, he just popped out,” said Logan’s new agent, Leaf Ireifej. “You simply noticed him no matter who was on television, Joe Burrow, anybody.” ‘Have you ever considered doing WWE?’ I asked. ‘Are you a fan at all?’ That’s when he revealed that he is not just a fan, but also a dream and a goal of his.
“We were already arranging this, and we understood that [WWE] was the next step for him, whatever his NFL career looked like.”
Logan, who is 6-5 and 303 pounds, started four seasons at LSU, earning a national title in 2019 and amassing 110 tackles and seven sacks in his career. He was not invited to the NFL scouting combine, but he has been working out at Athletic Performance in Fresno, California, in preparation for LSU’s pro day.
Logan is expected to be picked on Day 3 or as an undrafted free agent. His “main ambition” is to play in the NFL, but he also envisions a lengthy future in WWE.
“WWE is a huge stage, and it’s almost like being in the NFL,” he said. “The fan base is huge and has been for a long time. How can I maximize my NFL career? That’s how I approach it. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go on to WWE.”
Logan will stay associated with WWE even if he spends many seasons in the NFL. He’s not going to fight, which may result in non-football injuries and cost Logan money from an NFL franchise. He may, however, take part in promotions and be near wrestlers, events, and other members of the company.
“The most important thing is for him to enter into their ecology sooner,” said Leaf Ireifej, who has also worked with other pro wrestlers. “Take a look at Roman Reigns or Enzo Amore. Imagine where those guys would be now if they had access to WWE years before they began. This is him becoming engaged in the offseason, getting to know the product, and simply dabbling in it each offseason.”
Leaf Ireifej compares the WWE to a player’s post-football career. Logan has begun an internship period as a result of the NIL program. He gets to brush shoulders with the WWE’s greatest performers at events like WrestleMania.
“All I want to do is question various people: How did they get there?” Logan remarked. “All I want to know is what happened to them.”
Belair’s journey beyond Tennessee track led her to CrossFit, where she differentiated out for her performance as well as the one-of-a-kind handcrafted clothes she wore to events. After seeing a video of Belair’s Crossfit exercise on Instagram, WWE Hall of Famer and former champ Mark Henry messaged her, asking her to a WWE audition, which she converted into a contract.
“An NIL Program would have accelerated my career much further,” Belair stated. “I’ve had an incredible career, but I can’t think how much better it would have been if I had the tools that the NIL program offers.”
Former athletes’ paths to the WWE are not rare. Big E was only found when one of his Iowa football buddies saw a former Hawkeye wrestler who had sat next to WWE commentator Jim Ross on two flights and informed Ross he’d send along any names of prospective talent.
“The tale usually goes like this: you knew someone who knew someone, you had a lucky break, you got ahold of someone who had a connection to the business,” Kimball said. “Our objective is to take chance out of the equation and just increase the chances of college players getting a shot.”
WWE isn’t casting a broad net with its NIL signees, with each first batch capped at 15 people. The promotion is investing resources in recruitment and front-end research, resulting in a high signee success rate.
There has been considerable internal debate over signing college players with high draft forecasts, which might result in more marketing but also lengthier wait times until they join WWE’s program. For the time being, WWE is focusing on athletes who have had success in other professional sports, as well as those who do not, such as throwers in track and field.
The WWE preparation process for NIL signees like Spivak is already underway. He bombarded WWE staffers with questions about the business and what to anticipate when he joins the developing program during a backstage tour before Raw. Spivak, who is completing his MBA at Northwestern this spring, is interested in both the behind-the-scenes and front-facing aspects of WWE.
He’s already considered his character alternatives. Juicebox is one of them, named after former Northwestern strength coach Joe Orozco, who died in 2020 and famously said, “If you’re juiceless, you’re worthless.” Spivak also has his own set of principles to promote, similar to Cena’s: attitude, character, and excitement.
Spivak will be ready to be a villain if WWE wants him to be one.
He said, “Go all the way.” “I want to be Mankind and The Fiend at the same time. If I’m going to a negative place, I have to fully reverse all of that positive. I’m incapable of doing anything half-heartedly.”
Logan is still developing possible personalities, but he is looking forward to receiving technical and performance coaching. “I’d feel like I’m on top of the world,” Logan remarked during a Zoom interview when asked what it would be like to be a collegiate national champion and a WWE champion.
Despite the fact that the NIL market is becoming more competitive, Spivak and Logan believe WWE’s program will continue to appeal to collegiate players.
“You see all this NIL, and it’s basically people paying athletes to wear their shirts and drive their cars,” Spivak said. “What [WWE] is doing is providing us the chance to realize a dream.”