American snowboarders were the talk of the town this week in Pyeongchang. Chloe Kim, Red Gerard, and Shaun White all won gold at the Winter Olympics; the first two are both 17 years old, while White is at the other end of the spectrum, a 31-year-old veteran who has now won three gold medals in four Olympics.
Each of them has sponsorships from big blue-chip brands. Gerard scored a Burton sponsorship at age 11. White has Burton, Red Bull, Target, and Beats By Dre, among others.
But it’s Kim whose star is shining brightest after the first week of the Olympics. Her sponsors include Nike, Burton, Toyota, Visa, Samsung, Target, Mondelez, and Monster, and appear to be multiplying by the day.
Chloe Kim is sponsorship gold
“She really is a marketer’s dream on many, many levels,” says Thayer Lavielle, an executive at Wasserman who works with big brands on their sports sponsorships. “She warrants it all.” Lavielle is the guest on the newest episode of the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast; listen below.
Lavielle says Kim has the full package: an inspiring story (she is the daughter of Korean immigrants, and her father quit his job in order to support her training full-time, a decision that was the subject of an emotional Super Bowl ad for the Olympics on NBC); the athletic ability (she now has the gold medal to prove it); and an authentic personality.
“The cool part about somebody like Chloe Kim is that she’s an absolutely delightful 17-year-old who’s funny to follow anyway, and then all of a sudden she goes out and just crushes it. So she’s a hero because she’s crushing it for the U.S., but on the other hand, she’s completely approachable and normal, because she’s tweeting about how she’s hangry.”
Wish I finished my breakfast sandwich but my stubborn self decided not to and now I'm getting hangry
— Chloe Kim (@chloekimsnow) February 13, 2018
Kim’s tweets have actual business significance: as television viewership for all live sports declines, social media is where a brand’s sponsorship investment pays off the most. A single tweet can often go more viral than a television ad ever does, and Lavielle notes that Kim shouts out sponsors like Toyota in what comes across as an authentic manner. Kim’s Twitter following has exploded since her medal-winning run.
“I actually love working with sponsors,” Kim told CNBC in an interview. “It’s so much more than just a contract. I genuinely only want to work with people that I agree with on certain things. I just need to make sure we’re all on the same page.” And come April, when Kim turns 18, ESPN reports that she will get more personal control over the nature of her deals.
Most Olympic athletes can’t make big endorsement money
Still, the vast majority of Olympic athletes can’t get big endorsement deals. And even for those who win gold, the money doesn’t typically last, since the nature of the Olympics is so cyclical.
For all sports, endorsement contracts have “migrated into a different territory,” Lavielle says. “The relationship doesn’t have to be so long-term. You don’t have to commit to a three-year, personal services agreement with all sorts of bells and whistles anymore. You can just do a $100,000 content deal for one particular product launch or one particular time frame. So the rules have certainly changed.”
Indeed, compared to a big signature sneaker deal for an NBA star (like Derrick Rose, still getting $11 million per year from Adidas) or the 10-year contracts that golfers Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth have with Nike and Under Armour, respectively, Olympic sponsorships are more often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not the millions. They are also tend to be shorter commitments from the brand. Lavielle says Olympic endorsement deals are organized “on the quad,” meaning every four years.
There is also still a disparity in how much money male and female athletes make from endorsement deals. This gap persists, “despite the same work ethic and results, in many cases,” says Lavielle. “It’s not like the women are working any less hard or getting less results.”
And even a big Olympic star may not keep making sponsorship money forever, since their future performance is in doubt. There’s no guarantee Red Gerard and Chloe Kim will be back at the next Winter Games, and both could make more money anyway by appearing in snowboarding films.
Olympic athletes, even those who win consistently over many years, eventually fade from the spotlight. Usain Bolt won eight gold medals over three Olympics and became the global face of Puma— but you don’t see him as often in television ads anymore. That’s no accident: Lavielle argues his dominance in his sport actually hurt his value to big sponsors. “He is a phenom… He went around the world doing what he does best… No one could catch him,” she says. “And how do you capitalize on that as an individual and as a brand? I’m not sure that he was the most successful at that.”
On the other hand, there is an athlete like Peyton Manning, still flooding television airwaves in advertisements for corporate sponsors, two full NFL seasons after his retirement. That’s about the lasting appeal of his personality, Lavielle says. “There are some athletes where they need to capitalize on it quick, because it’s not going to be there forever, because their personality might not take them the long haul.”
Lavielle predicts Kim will be the Manning type. “I have a feeling,” she says, “we’re going to see Chloe Kim in a lot of places coming up. It takes a unique personality to do it, but she is a bright light that could carry that torch.” Perhaps Kim can also help fuel progress in ending the endorsement gender disparity.