How WWE is using NIL to find its future talent, and why Northwestern's Joe Spivak is all-in

ByAdam Rittenberg ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 29, 2022

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- As Seth Rollins baited AJ Styles into a match for a spot on the WrestleMania 38 card (8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Peacock), Joe Spivak watched in awe from his ringside seat at Allstate Arena.

Spivak, a Northwesterndefensive lineman from 2017 to 2021 and a team captain last season, attended WWE Raw last Monday as a guest of the promotion. Sitting just feet from the ring, he marveled at the power and performance of The Miz, Omos, Alpha Academy, Rhea Ripley and Liv Morgan, Styles and, of course, Rollins.

"He's so good with the mic," Spivak said as Rollins incited Styles and the crowd.

Spivak envisions nights when he'll walk down the aisle and address thousands at WWE events. The wrestling organization is ramping up its recruitment of college athletes and Spivak was one of 16, including six football players, who signed name, image and likeness deals with WWE as part of an NIL program launched in December.

WWE sees NIL as a way to identify and develop the next generation of superstars earlier than ever. During WrestleMania week, more than 50 male and female participants with backgrounds in college athletics will try out with WWE at The Star, the Dallas Cowboys' practice facility in Frisco, Texas. In June, WWE will announce a new 15-person NIL class, which again will include players from college football's highest level. The promotion already has an impressive lineup of former college athletes, including current champion Brock Lesnar (Minnesotawrestling) and recent champ Big E (Iowa Hawkeyes football), as well as past greats such as Stone Cold Steve Austin (North Texasfootball) and The Rock (Miamifootball).

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 IllinoisUniversity -- 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.

WWE ultimately wants to get Spivak, Logan and its other NIL signees in the ring -- first at its development center in Orlando. But only after their NFL pursuit reaches its endpoint.

"[Football] was my first love," Spivak told ESPN. "That was my first dream. And I need to see that through so that when I get to [WWE], I can be absolutely firing on all cylinders, I have no regrets, I'm all-in.

"I'm gonna ride this NFL dream until the freakin' wheels fall off, and then I am sprinting to Orlando."

FOR WWE, THE wait is worth it -- even if it still takes years. Though the promotion has had success with former college athletes, many didn't start their pro 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.

Spivak and Logan are both 24. Other college athletes who signed NIL deals with WWE are younger, including Minnesota wrestler Gable Steveson, 21, the Olympic gold-medal winner and WWE's first NIL signee. All of the ex-college athletes participating in tryouts this week are younger than 25.

"We would like that [age] number to come down, especially on the developmental standpoint," said James Kimball, WWE's senior vice president for global talent strategy and development. "The second you enter our developmental program and then potentially end up on NXT TV and then onto Smackdown or Raw, you want that number to be 25, not 30 or 35."

The way to get that number to fall is to start the development process earlier. While some wrestlers are fast-tracked onto TV rosters -- Bron Breakker, a former Kennesaw State running back, needed just six months to reach NXT and won the championship less than four months later. By identifying and signing college athletes while they're still in school, WWE can start familiarizing them with the world of pro wrestling even while they're still competing in their sports.

In January, WWE brought Spivak to St. Louis for the Royal Rumble. Logan will attend WrestleMania, his first in-person event despite being a longtime fan of professional wrestling.

"We're able to develop them in an accelerated manner," Kimball said. "Get them to WrestleMania or Raw, do media training, do community events. All those initial exposures to the business, those have been done while you're still in school. And then you come down to Orlando and off you go."

Before sitting with Spivak for Raw, Kimball had been in Detroit for the NCAA wrestling championships. He watched Steveson win his second collegiate heavyweight title and leave his shoes on the mat. But Kimball was also scouting other potential NIL targets. WWE will be an annual presence at NCAA championships for wrestling, track and field and gymnastics while continuing to monitor college football, "a sweet spot for us," Kimball said. Earlier this month, WWE announced a partnership with INFLCR, which works with many NCAA institutions and provides a large database of athletes to access.

Kimball said WWE's wish list for NIL targets falls into two buckets: physical (look, size, athleticism, strength) and personality (public speaking, charisma, character range, willingness to be coached).

"Ideally, you'd like to find a nice blend," Kimball said. "It's understanding how to transfer true athleticism from a given sport to a 20-by-20 ring, understanding spatial awareness and timing. And then it's the ability to express themselves on a microphone. That becomes a requirement over time, whether you're a heel or a face, or you're heavy on promo or even light, at some point you need to be able to tell a story."

According to Kimball, WWE remains "100 percent supportive" of college athletes completing their goals in their primary sport before pivoting to the ring. WWE's first NIL class included Oklahoma State wrestler AJ Ferrari, who won an NCAA championship as a freshman in 2021.

Ferrari is only 20, and recovering from a serious car accident in January. He wants to pursue more NCAA titles, as well as the Paris Olympics in 2024, before focusing on WWE.

"Even if you come to WWE when you're 23, 24, 25, that's a significant improvement over what has historically been the case with some of our developmental talent," Kimball said. "We fully support every athlete pursuing their dreams in their given sport. The idea is that we have that opportunity in college to evaluate them as a potential talent, and for them to evaluate us."

SINCE NORTHWESTERN'S SEASON ended in November, Spivak has spent most of his days training for NFL testing. At night, though, he immerses himself in WWE.

"I really don't sleep much," he said. "I stay up, I watch WWE and I write promos. That is what I'm passionate about."

Spivak isn't the biggest name in WWE's first NIL class of college athletes, but he might be the most natural fit. The 6-foot, 300-pound defensive tackle came to Northwestern as a walk-on but appeared in 47 games, starting 15 during his final two seasons. He also has the look. Tattoos line his muscular right arm and a strip of hair rests atop his head, which is shaved on the sides.

Then there's the personality, which Spivak let loose throughout his college career. He began by hosting Northwestern's athlete talent shows. Next came his own YouTube show,appropriately called "WOW!" and complete with a retro logo of Spivak holding a bottle of SunnyD. When Northwestern welcomed new students to campus in the fall, Spivak addressed the group about athletics.

He emceed during timeouts at Northwestern basketball games this past season. A theater minor, Spivak was set to do an independent show through The Second City improv and comedy club in Chicago before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

"What I love more than anything is absolutely connecting with a crowd and spreading a message," he said. "That's kind of an art that is lost, looking someone in the eye and talking about something that you feel really passionate about. Where I think I'm going to separate myself [in WWE] is absolutely with the promos, with the speaking, with the crowd connection.

"That's what is most true to myself."

Spivak has been a performer his entire life. He grew up southwest of Chicago in Darien, Illinois, with his parents, Joe and Shari, and three older sisters, who soon became his first crowd.

"Girls always put on shows, and he jumped right in there," Shari said. "He became the entertainment for them. It was full-on outfits."

Added Joe Sr.: "He's very at home in front of the camera."

The Spivaks emphasized sports, school and smiles. Shari and Joe even enforced a "smile check" with their kids before they left the house.

"You've got to smile at Mom and Dad, because that's the window that lets people know what's inside," Joe Sr. said. "If you know anything about Joe, he's all about positivity. That's what he's going to try to bring to the WWE."

Joe Sr. was a walk-on offensive lineman at Illinois State who became an All-American there. His daughters Courtney and Lexi were swimmers at Illinois and Missouri, respectively, while Jordan attended Michigan State. Not surprisingly, Joe Jr. dove into sports early, especially wrestling and football.

"My first love was Olympic wrestling; I started in kindergarten," said Spivak, who continued wrestling through his freshman year of high school. "I was like, 'This is it. I'm going to be the next [Olympic champion] Rulon Gardner.' I would go back and forth with my best friend, Pat Ladd, and I'd go, 'WWE's not real wrestling, dude.'"

Ladd was hooked on WWE and had its action figures and video games. Soon, he converted Spivak. They watched shows in Ladd's basement and mimicked their favorites. Spivak's list included The Boogeyman ("His entrance was just terrifying"), Lesnar ("I'm rocking the boots tonight") and Mick Foley, whose different personas -- Cactus Jack, Mankind, Dude Love -- and gift for executing promos inspire him now.

Spivak started thinking about WWE early in college. In 2018, Northwestern attended a wrestling event before the Music City Bowl in Nashville, and Spivak ended up with his shirt off in the ring and his teammates chanting his name. Through connections at Northwestern, he contacted Sean Hayes, head strength and conditioning coach at WWE's performance center. He also spoke to Megan Morant, a WWE correspondent who ran cross country at Northwestern.

When the Big Ten Network profiled Spivak in November 2020, he outlined his preferred career path, saying, "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 fall, he got in touch with Trent Wilfinger, WWE's senior vice president for talent identification and development, who had helped launch the NIL program. Spivak said he started sending Wilfinger "an annoying amount" of promos.

"Just talking to anyone I could basically, through my sophomore and junior year, before NIL was even a thing," Spivak said. "I wanted to make this happen regardless. I had no idea they were doing [the NIL program] until I got in touch with Trent. At that point it was, 'Oh, perfect, let's go!'"

LOGAN WAS ONLY 5 when he became a WWE superfan. He loved the matches between Randy Orton and Edge, and was "heartbroken" when Shawn Michaels retired. The Kenner, Louisiana-born Logan watched shows and played WWE 2K video games.

He and his friends even used a mattress to practice their favorite moves.

"I thought about doing it when I was younger," Logan said. "It was something destined to happen."

Like Spivak, Logan had a potential path to WWE before its NIL program launched. When football agent Sam Leaf Ireifej began researching Logan on Instagram his first thought was: "This guy's made for WWE."

"Just his appearance and his vibe, he just stood out," said Leaf Ireifej, who now represents Logan. "No matter who was on screen, Joe Burrow, whoever, you just noticed him. I said, 'Have you ever thought about doing WWE? Are you even a fan?' That's when he informed me not only is he a fan, but that's a dream and a goal of his.

"We were already plotting this and we knew that whatever his NFL career might look like, [WWE is] the next step for him."

The 6-5, 303-pound Logan started four seasons for LSU, winning a national championship in 2019 and recording 110 career tackles with seven sacks. He didn't get an invitation to the NFL scouting combine, but has been training for LSU's pro day at Athletic Performance in Fresno, California.

Logan is projected as a Day 3 pick or an undrafted free agent. He calls the NFL his "primary dream" but also sees a long career in WWE.

"WWE is a big platform and it's really like playing in the NFL," he said. "The fan base is great and it's been around so long. I look at it as: How do I take my NFL career to its full potential? Then, if that doesn't work out, then I'll turn to WWE."

Even if Logan plays several seasons in the NFL, he will remain connected with WWE. He won't get into the ring, which could cause non-football injuries and cost Logan compensation from an NFL team. But he can participate in promotions and be around wrestlers, events and others in the organization.

"The biggest thing is just him getting into their ecosystem sooner," said Leaf Ireifej, who has worked with other pro wrestlers in addition to football clients. "You look at Roman Reigns or Big E. Imagine where those guys would be if they had the opportunity to tap into WWE years before they started. This is him getting involved in the offseason, getting around the product, just dabbling in it and getting his feet wet each offseason."

Leaf Ireifej likens the WWE to any post-football career for a player. Because of the NIL program, Logan is entering an internship phase of sorts. Events such as WrestleMania allow him to rub elbows with the promotion's biggest stars.

"I just want to ask different people: What was their journey to get there?" Logan said. "I just want to find out their stories."

Belair's story after Tennessee track took her to CrossFit, where she stood out both with her performance and the unique homemade outfits she'd wear to competitions. WWE Hall of Famer and former champ Mark Henry saw a video of Belair's Crossfit workout on Instagram and messaged her, inviting her to a WWE tryout, which she turned into a contract.

"An NIL Program would have propelled me even quicker into my career," Belair said. "I've had an amazing career, but I can't imagine how it would have further impacted me, having the resources that the NIL program provides."

Belair's path to WWE is not uncommon for former athletes. Big E was discoveredonly when one of his Iowa football teammates saw a former Hawkeye wrestler who had randomly sat next to WWE broadcaster Jim Ross on two flights and told Ross he would pass along any names of potential talent.

"The story typically is that you knew someone who knew someone, you had a chance opportunity, you got ahold of an individual who had a line to the company," Kimball said. "Our goal here is to eliminate chance from the equation and just improve the likelihood of college athletes having an opportunity."

WWE isn't casting a wide net with its NIL signees, with plans to keep each initial group to 15. The promotion is putting resources into recruiting and front-end research so its hit rate with signees ends up being strong.

There has been some internal discussion of signing college athletes with high draft projections, which could generate marketing bumps but also longer waits before they integrate into WWE's program. For now, WWE is targeting some athletes with paths in other pro sports but also others, such as throwers in track and field, who don't have outlets beyond the amateur ranks.

For NIL signees such as Spivak, the WWE preparation process is well underway. During a backstage tour before Raw, he peppered WWE employees with questions about the promotion and what to expect when he enters the developmental program. Spivak, set to finish his MBA at Northwestern this spring, is interested in WWE's behind-the-scenes side as well as its front-facing elements.

He has already thought about character options. Among them is Juicebox, to honor former Northwestern strength coach Joe Orozco, who died in 2020 and coined one of Spivak's favorite lines: "If you're juiceless, you're useless." Spivak also has his own Cena-like list of values to promote: attitude, character, enthusiasm.

If WWE wants Spivak as a heel, he'll be ready too.

"Go all the way," he said. "I want to be Mankind, I want to be The Fiend. If I'm going to go to a dark place, I've got to take all that positivity and flip it completely. I can't do anything halfway."

Logan is still working on potential characters but looks forward to being coached, both technically and as a performer. Asked during a Zoom interview what it would be like to be a college national champion and a WWE champion, Logan smiled and said, "I'd feel like I'm on top of the world."

The NIL marketplace is increasingly crowded, but both Spivak and Logan think WWE's program will continue to appeal to college athletes.

"You see all this NIL and it's pretty much people paying athletes to wear their shirts and drive their car or whatever," Spivak said. "What [WWE] is doing is giving us an opportunity to make a dream a reality."