KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Chandler Hayden has always defied stereotypes.
“Doing things out of the norm builds confidence,” she explained.
The 2019 graduate of Pittsfield High School is anything but typical. And perhaps her boldest move yet came last month when Hayden, a University of Tennessee track and field thrower, was one of 15 college athletes to sign a name, image and likeness (NIL) agreement with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
Capitalizing on the 2021 NCAA rule that allows college athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness, WWE launched its “Next In Line” program in December to recruit and develop potential performers.
WWE, with a worldwide audience, has signed 31 college athletes since the program’s inception. All have access to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Fla., as well as resources to assist with brand building, media training, communication, live event promotion, creative writing and community relations.
Upon completing the program, athletes could be offered a WWE contract. Six who graduated from December’s first class have either signed or are in discussion to join WWE on a full-time basis, the company said.
“I was very hesitant at first,” Hayden said. “I knew about it, but I wasn’t a die-hard WWE fan growing up. My agent reached out to me to see if I was interested. He said it was a huge deal and I would crush it.
“I scheduled a call with a WWE representative. He explained what (the program) stands for and what the deal entails. After hearing about it, I thought it could be interesting, a way to get my name out there more for NIL deals.
“If I want to take that path after college, I have my foot in the door.”
‘Girls need to know it’s cool to be strong’
Hayden, who grew up on a farm outside Milton, Ill., took up throwing the discus and shot put in track and field in middle school largely to follow in the footsteps of her older brothers, even though it was a male-dominated discipline most girls didn’t choose.
That was the first stereotype she brushed aside.
Hayden eventually finished fourth in the Illinois Class 1A girls state track and field championships in both events as a senior at Pittsfield and earned a scholarship to Tennessee.
After redshirting her first year, she set the school’s freshman record for both the indoor 20-pound weight throw and outdoor hammer throw. She has since bettered both marks and ranks third all-time in Vols’ history in the weight throw and fifth in the hammer throw.
“I just threw because my brothers did and I looked up to them,” said Hayden, who stands 5-foot-11. “It was not something a lot of girls did.
“It’s definitely different when you’re stronger growing up and lifting the same amount of weight as boys. I still get those looks today with football players and basketball players here. Girls need to know it’s cool to be strong.”
Another stereotype down.
The NIL is the ability of college athletes to make money off their “name, image, and likeness.” It was instituted last July after the Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA, which had long argued that, as amateur athletes, players could not make money off things like jersey sales and autographs.
It has changed the landscape of college athletics.
College athletes are now able to accept money from businesses in exchange for allowing a business to feature them in advertisements or products. Athletes also can use their status to promote their own public appearances or companies.
Through a high school friend of one of her brothers, Hayden was introduced to Tay Hawker, CEO of Hawker Family Sports & Entertainment. She signed with the agency, which represents both professional and amateur athletes, last August.
“Most athletes didn’t understand (NIL) and got paid less than they should have,” Hayden said. “I was able to have guidance from the beginning.”
Hayden said she has inked deals with the likes of JCPenney, Sports Illustrated, the clothing line UGG and some energy drink companies, but there’s a disparity between what can be earned by men and women athletes and those in high-revenue versus Olympic sports.
“I’m the most-followed athlete at Tennessee through social media, but I still won’t make as much as the quarterback at our school,” she said. “Women’s track and field doesn’t have the fan base or the donors who want to donate enough for NIL deals.”
‘It has changed my life for the better’
Social media is where she has made the biggest impact, however. She has nearly 54,000 followers on Instagram and more than 224,000 followers on TikTok and has used those platforms to develop name recognition, which, in turn, has helped open the door for NIL deals.
“I started doing videos when we went to track meets and were killing time in our hotel rooms,” Hayden said. “I’d do some dances, some lifting videos, trying to develop my brand. I had some followers on Instagram and TikTok, but ever since (signing with Hawker) they have been growing consistently.
“People find it hard to believe, but you can make careers out of social media now by working brands, shooting content, making videos. (Companies) ask me to do certain things and mention their product. I cater to my audience and get them to buy a product I like.
“It has changed my life for the better. It has changed how I view myself and my personal brand. I can now speak on how I feel about things.”
Hayden’s agreement with WWE runs through the final two years of her college eligibility and she says she’s “open-minded” about what it could potentially offer.
WWE acknowledges its shows are not legitimate contests, but entertainment-based performance theater, featuring storyline-driven, scripted and partially choreographed matches. It reportedly generated $1.095 billion in revenue in 2021.
Hayden said she spent time with Paul Michael Levesque, who goes by the ring name Triple H, during the NIL Summit last month in Atlanta. She plans to attend WWE’s SummerSlam later this month in Nashville to get a behind-the-scenes look.
“I think it intrigues me more than just wrestling,” she said. “It’s a whole different world. There’s the athletic side and the entertainment side (of WWE). There are brand deals outside of wrestling. The social media aspect is interesting.
“I’ve been performing since I was younger. My grandma would record me doing little acts. But I don’t plan things five years in advance or 10 years in advance. I genuinely believe opportunities come my way for a reason and I take things day by day. We’ll see where it goes.”
One thing is certain, however, and that is Hayden, who turns 22 in August, will continue to build and tell her story. Overcoming stereotypes is a major theme, whether it’s in athletics or life.
“There’s a stigma that if you’re from a small town you’re going to stay there,” she said. “I grew up outside Milton, Ill., and I want to show other kids who come from small towns that you can still go do some pretty significant things.
“I’m someone who got out. I’m pretty consumed with my athletics right now, but I eventually would like to go help other athletes from small schools get to the next level.”
For Chandler Hayden, the next level remains on the horizon.
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