Think you know the TikTok-famous Cavinder twins? Think again (2024)

  • Think you know the TikTok-famous Cavinder twins? Think again (1)

    Alexa Philippou, ESPNNov 2, 2022, 08:00 AM ET


    • Covers women's college basketball and the WNBA
    • Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
    • Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati Enquirer

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Haley and Hanna Cavinder arrive at a photo shoot in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood, sliding out of a black Chevy Suburban. It's a sunny Saturday two weeks before the start of their senior season with the University of Miami women's basketball team, and officially an off-day after a demanding week of practice. But the twins -- among the top beneficiaries from laws enacted last summer allowing college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness -- have a packed day and are at the studio by 10 a.m.

The four-hour shoot -- which also features filming a number of videos for TikTok, where the Cavinders boast 4.1 million followers on their joint account -- is for a Champs holiday campaign. Over 200 boxes arranged in a "gift mountain" and a massive black and white Jeep Apocalypse, a play off Santa's sleigh, fill the space.

The twins request Taylor Swift's "Midnights" to play in the background and don six outfits from various brands -- Champs' Cozi line, Adidas, Nike, Gymshark, Puma -- but they're most excited to wear a pair of vibrant Oakley shades. They pose standing up on the Jeep, on the ground, in front of the gift mountain, in front of a blank wall -- some more serious stances, some fun, some with one or both pointing toward the camera. They switch the music to A Boogie wit da Hoodie, and in the afternoon ask for a score update for Miami's football game (the Hurricanes are losing to Duke).

By 2 p.m., Champs has 652 photos of the Cavinders, not including others taken with film, Polaroids and disposable cameras the 21-year-old twins have to be shown how to use. Simultaneously, a marketing rep on hand from the twins' agency is tasked with capturing content for their social media pages and YouTube channel. With instruction and approval from the pair, the Instagram posts drop live or within hours of the shoot. The YouTube vlog, edited by an older sister, lands two days later.

Forbes estimates Haley and Hanna Cavinder have pocketed $1.7 million, a number their agent said is "close [and] we'll far surpass this year." According to the CEO of NIL marketplace Opendorse, the twins are top five in NIL earnings for women's sports and "safely" in the top 10 across all sports in the company's data set featuring student-athletes from 800 schools.

The twins have been looking forward to this shoot for a while. But if they didn't have any basketball or NIL responsibilities and could be anywhere on the map, they would likely choose to be far from Miami. In fact, they explain in between the Champs shoot and another for their yet-to-be-announced podcast, "Twin Talk," they'd be in the small town of Watervliet, Michigan, in the southwestern part of the state not far from the Indiana border. Population 1,735. Internet availability? "Barely" any, their mom, Katie Cavinder, says.

Watervliet, where Katie's extended family lives, is the sort of place with dirt roads and no Starbucks in sight, where everyone around town knows each other and the twins are so in the moment they'll go hours without picking up their phones. The Cavinders try to visit every Fourth of July and Labor Day, and they estimate as many as 25 family members show up for Sunday dinners.

"It's the opposite of what we do every day," Haley said. "It's a special place where you don't have to worry about what you have to wear, just a break from what we have to do with being influencers every day."

Haley says she'd be at her grandma's house eating her Aunt B's irresistible oatmeal butterscotch cookies. Hanna would be on a boat in Paw Paw Lake, jamming to country music, or at Uncle Bob's backyard parties, complete with food, a pool and dogs.

Two years since they first went viral on TikTok and one since the dawn of the NIL era, the Cavinder twins are still navigating the complexities and realities that come with such a rapid ascension into fame. So far during their nearly five months in Miami, Haley and Hanna have shown their teammates and coaches that they're dedicated basketball players.

But they hear the "haters" who don't think they take basketball seriously, who write them off simply as "Instagram models" or TikTokers. They know those rumblings got even louder this past spring when the 5-foot-6 guards announced their transfer from Fresno State, a move they say was motivated by basketball and their desire to play in the NCAA tournament.

And Haley and Hanna continue to bristle when their intentions and priorities are questioned on social media and by people who don't really know them.

"[The NIL fame] happened a year ago," Haley said. "I've been playing basketball since I was 6."

It's nearly impossible to fully tune out critiques and criticisms, though the twins try their best. But what's overlooked in their TikToks and Instagrams and NIL deals is their determination -- according to not just what the twins say but also what those in their circle say.

"They don't see them as basketball players," said Miami assistant Shenise Johnson, who played for the Hurricanes before eight seasons in the WNBA. "They see them as TikTok celebrities or whatever. ... But that's not who they are. They're F'ing ballers, hoopers, and probably some of the most competitive I've been around.

"They're good human beings. They're really good teammates. They care about each other. And they work. I don't know if people really know that about them."

THE TWINS COMPETED with each other from the beginning, even with walking and crawling. Haley -- a minute older and a pound larger at birth -- tended to be the one who took off first, with Hanna not far behind. Both were bold and fearless: Shortly after the family's move from South Bend, Indiana, where the twins were born, to Arizona, Katie Cavinder remembers them doing backflips with no floaties off a rock wall into the pool at their new home. They were 3.

All the Cavinder children (five daughters) played sports, but the twins' drive and advanced athleticism set them apart. Before long, they were playing basketball against older age groups and, by the fifth grade, in all-boys leagues. Other parents, Tom Cavinder recalls, would complain how unfair it was their kids had to face his daughters.

The sport became a shared passion for the twins, from AAU to junior high, when they first determined they wanted to play together long term, to their years at Gilbert High School in Arizona. Often feeling overlooked due to their size, the twins were ranked three-star recruits out of high school by ESPN HoopGurlz.

The Cavinders played their first three collegiate seasons at Fresno State, a mid-major that appeared in one Mountain West Conference tournament championship game while they were there. The league's 2020-21 Player of the Year, Haley set a single-season NCAA record for free throw percentage (.973, 109 of 112) last season, and Hanna was a two-time all-conference selection. They shot 36.0% and 34.9% from the 3-point line, respectively, as juniors. Haley's three triple-doubles last season was second only to national player of the year candidate Caitlin Clark's five.

When she was younger, Haley remembers asking Katie to stay home from school to watch the NCAA tournament. The twins always wanted to play in March, on the sport's most prominent stage, and figured transferring gave them their best shot.

"We put so much time into the game, and we wanted to get to the March Madness tournament," Haley said. "At the mid-major level, it's hard. It's really, really hard, and we tried for three years. So I'm like, 'Let's position ourselves to try to meet that goal.'"

Transferring to a Power 5 would be an adjustment, and after starting and averaging north of 34 minutes per game each of their first three seasons, they would likely no longer be the go-to players for their team. But that wasn't a massive concern when considering next steps.

"You can get all that stuff, but if you're not winning, what's it for?" Haley said. "I want to be part of something special, a more balanced team, and just finding my role and what we can bring to the team every single day."

While the Cavinders were searching for a new home, the Hurricanes were looking to fill a need they hoped would take them to the next level.

MIAMI COACH Katie Meier held a meeting with her staff not long after the team's loss to eventual national champion South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament this past March. The Hurricanes held the Gameco*cks to a season-low 49 points but managed just 33 of their own on 23.9% shooting. It was a deflating defeat after two upsets and a run to the championship game in the ACC tournament.

Meier was positing that the team was in need of players who could shoot over opposing defenses when someone on her staff responded, "It might be 2-for-1." The Cavinder twins were in the transfer portal.

When Meier first connected with them, the pair asked a slew of questions: what system she runs, their potential roles, her coaching style, whether she's tough on her players and tells them the truth. The moment she heard how serious they were about basketball, coupled with their offensive prowess, Meier was sold.

"I was really taken aback by how intense they are," Meier said. "They are really aggressive about basketball, and so I was like, 'Well, this is awesome.' I could have talked to them forever."

"We're gonna punch a lot of people in the mouth, and people are gonna have to eat their words. I can't wait for it."Miami assistant coach Shenise Johnson, who was asked if 'those Instagram models' can 'actually play basketball' after signing the Cavinders

After visiting Arizona State, Miami and USC, the twins kept comparing everything to what they found in Coral Gables. It was just what they were looking for basketball-wise, as the Hurricanes have been to nine of the past 12 NCAA tournaments. And while Meier -- a former gold-medal-winning coach with USA Basketball youth teams -- is not known for going easy on her players, the twins didn't shy away.

"Coach Katie's obviously very competitive, and coming on campus and seeing how she interacted with her players was super attractive to us," Hanna said.

It helped too that their paternal grandparents live two hours away in Naples, and one of their sisters four hours northwest in St. Petersburg.

Hoops played the primary role in the twins' transfer, but the move, according to their agent, Jeff Hoffman at Everett Sports Management, allowed them to pick up an East Coast following, encouraging brands to double down on them as domestic, even global, stars.

"If you think about taking two talented video content creators and you put their backdrop as the beach, you're fitting right into the ideal scenario for a premium brand trying to target and market to a certain type of customer set," Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence said.

The twins announced their commitment to Miami on April 21, and a section of social media quickly reacted by saying the move was hardly surprising given the copious NIL opportunities in a major market like Miami.

"They don't let it on a lot, but they get a little frustrated when everybody just wants to talk about NIL instead of basketball," Tom Cavinder said. "They were frustrated a little bit at the beginning because the perception was 'who's not going to South Beach?'"

"We love basketball, but do I think I'm known for playing basketball like all these other well-known superstar female basketball players? No," Haley said. "But does that mean I don't love basketball as much? No. I love basketball. What works for me is what works for me. Doesn't have to work for you."

When Johnson was on the road recruiting in July, multiple coaches from other teams commented, "You guys got those Instagram models, huh? Can they actually play basketball?'"

She would often respond, "Yeah, we got those Instagram models, don't worry," with a wink before walking away. But it wasn't until getting into the weeds with the twins as their position coach later that summer that Johnson realized what they were working with.

"We're gonna punch a lot of people in the mouth, and people are gonna have to eat their words," Johnson said. "I can't wait for it."

TWO DAYS BEFORE the Champs shoot, shortly after the team's preseason media day, the Hurricanes are doing dynamic stretching to half court and back to warm up for practice. Sophom*ore Ja'Leah Williams breaks into song -- Justin Bieber's 2010 hit "Baby" -- and the whole team joins in. Hanna grooves along, clapping her hands alongside her teammates, while a similarly singing Haley turns to freshman Kyla Oldacre next to her and gives her a heart sign with her hands.

Meier admits she wasn't sure how the twins would acclimate with the rest of the team, but she says it happened seamlessly thanks largely to the twins' "social skill." When Johnson asks players about their favorite teammates to play with, everyone has the twins at the top of their lists, she says. Off the court, they'll all do TikToks together, said Williams, one of the team's other big TikTokers, and the twins will ask her to teach them dances.

"Whatever they do, they involve their family, starting with us," forward Destiny Harden said. "They don't make us feel like outsiders. ... They make us feel like we're their family away from family."

Added Williams: "They're my sisters, and I love them."

From a strictly basketball perspective, adjusting to Meier's program is hard for any newcomer. Meier uses unique on-court verbal communication and wants her players to understand why they're running a certain play, not just the what. She has frequently welcomed transfers over the years, but "we don't want a newcomer coming here soft," Meier said.

It hasn't been an issue for the Cavinders. In fact, when Meier called Hanna "soft" for failing to take a charge in practice one day, it rolled off her back.

"Miami's known to play our tails off," Meier said. "And they're playing harder than a lot of their teammates. ... They're like, ultra-, super-, uber-competitors, and they're just thriving in this environment."

"They want to be pushed. They truly want to be good. They want to be great," Johnson added. "You can yell at them, 'No, that ain't f---ing it, Haley. And here's why.' And she'll be like, 'I got you' and she'll go out there and rip somebody's head off to get it done next time. That's what you want as a coach."

"Being a part of social media has made me realize how much I am not a fan of social media."Haley Cavinder

In addition to film time with Johnson at least four times a week, typically at 7:15 a.m., Haley and Hanna constantly text Meier to see if she can squeeze in 10-15 minutes before practice to watch more film.

When they aren't doing skill work with Johnson or practicing with the team, they're getting in extra shots, typically starting their days as early as 6 a.m. They'll text the team managers to come rebound for them as needed.

"They push others to want to get in the gym just like them," Williams said. "I don't know how early they get up, but I'm not getting up that early."

Added Johnson: "We have a culture, and they raise it even half an inch more because of their mindset, because of their relentless work ethic. ... They work harder than anyone that I've ever seen in a very long time."

Johnson made sure the twins knew people aren't taking them seriously, that what they did at Fresno State won't pass in the ACC, where the athletes are bigger and faster, taller and longer.

"They're like, 'What do we got to do?'" Johnson said. "They're so engaged because they want to be great."

MUSIC PUMPS LOUDLY from speakers. ABBA's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" and "Dancing Queen," along with Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," provide the soundtrack at high-end Japanese restaurant ZZ's Club, a stone's throw from stores like Gucci, Chanel, Alexander McQueen and Prada in Miami's Design District. A few hours after practice the night before the Champs shoot, the twins sit at the outdoor patio for dinner -- Haley enjoys a filet and Hanna some sashimi -- joined by Alexi Hecht, the director of communications at ESM, as well as a representative from Champs who came in from Bradenton, Florida.

The Cavinder twins say they never could have imagined two years ago that they'd be at such a dinner.

They view their TikTok fame as sudden and accidental. The two were bored at home in Arizona during the pandemic summer of 2020, so Hanna prompted Haley to make dance videos with her. Their first viral video featured them doing synchronized dribbling to "The Chicken Wing Beat," and it remains one of their most popular videos, with nearly 30 million views.

Hanna and Haley figured they'd ride the wave of popularity and see where it took them -- keeping in mind that few women's basketball players go pro and the ones who do aren't generally paid much.

"Why wouldn't we try to do both? Why wouldn't we try to capitalize off of it?" Haley said. "That'd be stupid of us not to be able to set ourselves up for the future."

With a total of 113 million likes on their shared TikTok account, nearly a combined million followers across three Instagram accounts and almost 80,000 subscribers to their YouTube channel, the pair believes people gravitate toward them because of the twin aspect, their status as Division I athletes, and their ability to connect with fans by showing both the similarities and differences of their personalities.

"Men's basketball at the professional and collegiate level is very much driven by personalities," said Lawrence, whose company has worked with the twins since their days at Fresno State. "Hanna and Haley are bringing big personalities and storylines to women's basketball ... we are in the social media era of sports."

The Cavinders' NIL success was in part a product of being in the right place at the right time. Tom Cavinder points out that the twins got ahead of it, setting everything in place so they could be off and running as soon as NIL was officially permitted July 1, 2021. They signed deals just after midnight that day with Six Star Pro Nutrition and Boost Mobile, the latter of which, along with digital marketplace ICON Source, announced the deal with a massive billboard in Times Square.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2022, and their agent, Hoffman, says ESM has worked with the Cavinders on approximately 42 deals since August 2021, with their brand centering around athletics/basketball, health/wellness and fashion. Approximately 15-20% are long-term deals like Champs, WWE, LifeWallet and Baseline, an apparel company in which the twins have equity. To Lawrence, they've mastered the ability to have both quality deals and a large quantity of them; according to SponsorUnited research, they have more deals than any other athlete in the women's basketball space at any level -- allowing them to outearn their peers.

Tom says the twins are investing "every single penny" of NIL money by working with Goldman Sachs. Down the line, the goal is to shift so that the Cavinders aren't just working alongside brands, Hoffman says, but "are actually the brand yourself," which could involve Cavinder protein powders and apparel, Cavinder Cabins through Airbnb and more. And in addition to their already popular YouTube channel, plus their Instagram and TikTok accounts, they are launching a podcast with iHeart Radio in early December that will center around the NIL discussion from student-athletes' perspectives. LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne is their first official guest.

HALEY AND HANNA find it surprising and cool when people ask to take pictures with them. At the same time, it can still be bizarre when they're confronted with the level of their fame.

"I hate to think of myself as someone that's famous or known," Haley said. "Not [to] little girls for basketball -- that's one of the most special things that all athletes can feel. But outside of that, being known by other faces that you don't even know, strangers that know you, I try to be like, 'For what?' I just don't think that we're that special in the world to be able to take a picture with."

As white women who come from a self-described "privileged" background, Haley and Hanna recognize that the opportunities given to basketball players both in the NIL space and at the WNBA level aren't always given out equitably.

"Me and Haley were given so much, and there's girls out there that weren't given anything and had to get to where they are in their sport or where they're at in life even in general. That is a privilege," Hanna said. "So that's why I won't sit here and ever complain, because I have been given a lot and other girls haven't, and it is because of their skin color."

"I don't think it's talked about enough," Haley adds. "I think it's talked about in the women's basketball community to an extent, but there's still not a lot of change out there. ... I do feel that looking a certain way definitely helps in this world, which is just sad."

With ESM and their lawyer guiding them, the Cavinders have learned to approach their social media more and more like a business. While grateful for the opportunities and repeatedly calling it a "dream job," the twins have also veered from fixating their identities around what is posted on social media.

"Everybody's social media is highlights and butterflies," Hanna said. "That's not the real you."

"You've no idea what people are going through, even if they post a selfie and they look cute in it," said Haley, adding, "Being a part of social media has made me realize how much I am not a fan of social media."

Vlogging on YouTube, the twins say, offers a better opportunity to showcase the ups and downs of life, at least compared with TikTok or Instagram. That's where their family also has noticed more of the "real" Cavinders appearing, Katie says. They intend to speak on more personal topics on their upcoming podcast, but there are still areas the twins hesitate to be entirely open about online. Hanna, in particular, says she has had to address her mental health and has been impacted by "hate comments" comparing the twins.

The twins love fitness, a major fixture across their social media and in their partnership with brands, and describe themselves as "girly." They will post selfies or pictures where they feel cute and confident, proud of the physical work they've put in to achieve the physique they have. If others judge them for it, "I feel like it's more of a personal problem," Hanna said. The twins see what they're doing as not much different from what other women their age, including other influencers, are posting.

"I feel as women, we should be uplifting -- not even just women, but males in general too," Hanna said.

The twins say their faith, including daily morning devotionals together, is a grounding force in their lives and has helped them navigate newfound fame and the outside negativity that comes with it. Their identities are not simply formed from basketball or from social media and NIL.

After signing their first NIL deals and seeing themselves on the billboard in Times Square, they returned to Michigan.

"[It was a] breath of fresh air because I remember us landing and not having to talk about all that had happened," Haley said. "They just love us for us."

THINGS ARE SHIFTING in Coral Gables. The twins didn't want to rock the boat too much when they first got to Miami, opting to observe rather than ask questions and assert themselves on court. And early on, the coaching staff accepted that, not wanting to inundate the twins as they familiarized themselves with Meier's system.

But as the season approaches, the twins know that they will be tested each night in ACC play, and that for Miami to be great they need to be at their best, too. They're yelled at if they don't shoot when they're open. And throughout practice the week before the Champs shoot, the staff is on them and encouraging them to lead.

In one drill, one of Hanna's teammates on the "orange" team kept making the same mental mistake, putting the team in a big hole. Hanna was the leader of the group.

"Hanna, don't be easy on them," Meier hollered. "If that happens again, I'll make you run."

"It won't happen again," Hanna told Meier matter-of-factly. And it didn't. Team Orange not only cleaned up the mistake but overcame a double-digit deficit to beat Team Green.

Two days later, Haley made the right decision for what type of play to run in an end-of-shot-clock situation, showcasing that she understood the why and not just the what. That, an ecstatic Meier said after practice, was a play she'd be thinking about for a while.

Meier already expects a punch from the bench but doesn't know exactly where the Cavinders will fit in. She anticipates they'll "be pretty significant" and "[solve] problems with me this year. I already know they will be giving me suggestions in the game. They have that mind, forward-thinking, problem-solving."

Haley -- who says if basketball opportunities arise for her after college she'll be the first to take them -- admits she wants to prove "what everyone's saying about me isn't true, but whatever." In the same breath, she recognizes she can't do it for the approval of others.

"I'm gonna do it for myself, and I'm gonna do it for my twin and my family," Haley said. "Just show up every day and control the things you can control. Not everything's gonna go your way. Work hard and compete and do what you can is what I try to do."

Hanna admits this could be it for her and basketball. Both twins said it's "TBD" whether they'd use their fifth year of eligibility.

"I'm one to not want to live with regret," Hanna said. "So if I'm gonna be here, I'm gonna do it 100% to the best of my ability."

Meier doesn't have any doubts about the determination the twins will approach this season with no matter how things pan out. The crux of that will be driven by who they have been well before arriving in Miami, well before their social media fame and the NIL deals flooded in -- and not by what they have to prove to others.

"I don't know how many times I can tell you I cannot believe how driven they are," Meier said. "If there's something that they don't know, if there's something they're not good at, they will find a way to master it. It's amazing."

This report includes video by Lara Fox.

Think you know the TikTok-famous Cavinder twins? Think again (2024)
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