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UK track star Masai Russell signs NIL deal with WWE, growing her brand

LEXINGTON, Ky. (BVM) – University of Kentucky track and field member Masai Russell is known for her blistering speed on race day. While the 5-foot-5 runner may be a star on the track for the Wildcats, her future may be in a different arena.

On Dec. 8, the WWE announced its first class of collegiate Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals which included 15 NCAA athletes from across the country. Among them was Russell, who is one of six women and just one of four track and field athletes to sign with the company. 

“When I was little, my brothers and I used to literally reenact the WWE moves so when they contacted me I was very surprised,” Russell said. “I was super excited once I joined the team because it’s a global brand. Who doesn’t know the WWE? So I was super excited about that.”

Called the “Next In Line” class, Russell shared her news and excitement about the deal to her social media.

While the deal doesn’t guarantee a contract with the organization, it does set up the athletes well in their bid to get one. According to the company, the deals include access to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida as well as brand building, media training, communications, live event promotion, creative writing and community relations using the organization’s wide array of resources. Though the company doesn’t give a full-time contract to all participants it does say upon completion of the program that select athletes could earn an exclusive opportunity to be offered a deal.

Russell has become one of the best hurdlers in the country, earning All-American status as a junior last year. (Photo: Grace Bradley/UK Athletics)

“It was great to understand exactly what they wanted from me because I was a bit nervous,” Russell said. “Once they told me what the deliverables were I was excited to know that I was one of the first group of athletes they chose to be a part of this college athletes NIL program.”

The question of course becomes how will Russell fit into the equation. Russell’s athleticism has been on display throughout her time in Lexington, most recently when she finished fourth in the 400-meter hurdles with a personal best time of 56.18, ranked fifth for UK all-time, earning first team All-America honors and sixth in the 100m hurdles at NCAA Championships with a time of 12.97, earning another first team All-American honor. Both her speed and jumping abilities will surely stand out when she makes her way to the Performance Center.

“I’m super blessed,” Russell said. “It’s just great to see all the hard work you put into something payoff. I’m looking to do bigger and better things this season…The season didn’t start off the way I wanted to, but it definitely finished the way I was proud of. I’m just super happy.”

However, being an elite athlete is not the only thing Russell has going for her. Ranked as having the most social media followers of any University of Kentucky athlete, it is clear that Russell knows how to keep an audience’s attention. With over 428,900 followers on TikTok, 162,000 followers on Instagram, 21,400 subscribers on YouTube and 5,967 followers on Twitter, Russell comes with a built in fan base that not only increases the WWE’s image through its NIL deal, but could pay dividends if she is selected for the next step of the journey by bringing more fans to the sport.

“It’s a blessing to know I have this platform that I could influence, encourage, inspire thousands and millions of individuals on a day-to-day basis and being able to use my platform through Kentucky to showcase it to the world it’s a blessing,” Russell said. “I never really asked for this but it is definitely meant for me because I’ve always been a social media person. I record everything, I have YouTube, I have a blog even before I was able to get paid from it and I really think it’s my calling outside of track.”

For Russell, the news of the WWE’s interest was as a surprise to her as it has been for her fans.

“Everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m going to give you a WWE name!’ and I’m like ‘Woah calm down I’m not wrestling anybody at least not yet,’” Russell said.

Though Russell admits that she won’t be going into a ring anytime soon, it does give her an opportunity to look at what a future role in the organization could look like which is something she didn’t think about prior to being contacted by the WWE.

“Just to know I will be a foot in the door, kind of a headstart in front of anyone else who wants to join the WWE…I was super excited, 100%,” Russell said. “I feel like it’s definitely something I would try out just to see…I know a lot of people have a lot of success just being a WWE athlete and pursuing so many other careers after that. So if that’s something I have to utilize to get my name, image and likeness out there and become the next ‘The Rock,’ the female version, I’d do that.”

No matter what her future brings, Russell is among the few college athletes to have even received the offer to join the program making her a part of an exclusive club. While the WWE and its fans wait for Russell’s decision, she will continue to make an impact on the tracks as she aims to once again make the Olympic Trials this summer.

“I of course want to be a professional athlete,” Russell said. “I have another year on the track, but if I don’t have to take another year I don’t want to. I want to pursue my professional and social media career without school. That’s the perfect plan. But if that’s not what God has for me I will come back to school. My goals are to be a national champion, SEC champion, win anything possible, break records, break the school record at Kentucky and just dominate and be at the best of my abilities.”