The Olympics are defined by pivotal moments and the athletes who create them — some of whom manage to transcend the ephemeral hype surrounding the 16 days of games.
Swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, is the most decorated Olympian of all time, having won 21 gold medals and 25 total (as of Wednesday). And Caitlyn Jenner was given the unofficial title of “world’s greatest athlete” when she (“he” at the time) won the 1976 Olympics decathlon.
Both these athletes have landed major sponsorship deals. Phelps is the face (and body) of Under Armour (UA) and other household names like Visa (V), Subway, Louis Vuitton (LVMH) and Procter & Gamble (PG). He earns an estimated $12 million a year in endorsement pay, according to Money Nation.
Unless you’re a phenomenon like Phelps or Jenner (both of whom were on the Wheaties box), it’s highly unlikely you’re clinching high-figure sponsorship deals, according to Doug Shabelman, president of Burns Entertainment.
“There’s a huge misconception surrounding the level of financial commitment companies make and what athletes can actually get from these deals,” he told Yahoo Finance.
Not all young, rising stars in the limelight now may face long-term success with sponsors, but there’s a common thread for those who do: a story that sells.
SHAPING THE NARRATIVE
There are moments from the Olympics that everybody remembers, like when McKayla Maroney and the “Fierce Five” women’s gymnastics team won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics and she won a silver medal in the individual vault event. Even those who find sports a snooze have likely seen the photo of her “not impressed” expression that blew up the internet — and became a meme that circulated around the world.
Other athletes have intriguing backgrounds that help them outlast their moments of Olympic fame.
Breakout stars like 19-year-old gymnast Simone Biles have incredible life stories as well as the validation from legends like fellow gymnast Mary Lou Retton and coach Bela Karolyi. She’s the first woman to win three consecutive all-around titles at the world championships. She even has her own signature move — a double layout with a half-twist and blind landing. It’s now known as “The Biles.”
Apart from a laundry list of superlatives and firsts, she has a childhood story that tugs on your heartstrings. When she was just 3 years old, her maternal grandfather and his second wife had to step in to raise her and her sister because her biological mom was a drug addict and couldn’t take care of them anymore. Stories about overcoming adversity appeal to marketers because they strike a chord with consumers and can be an aspirational story about hard work, perseverance and willpower. Hers became the subject of a Procter & Gamble commercial.
She’s also sponsored by powerhouse brands like Nike (NKE), Kellogg (K), Hershey’s (HSY), GK Elite Sportswear and Core Power, among others. In total, Biles could be making $3 million from endorsement deals alone after the Olympics, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Fellow gymnast Gabby Douglas is also signed with Nike, Kellogg, Nintendo (NTDOY), McDonald’s (MCD), and various beauty-focused brands like Coty (COTY), nail polish company OPI, and Gillette’s (PG) Venus brand. In 2014, Lifetime even made a biographical drama — “The Gabby Douglas Story” — about her childhood and teen years.
Douglas, 20, is the youngest of four children and has a dynamic and bubbly “momager.” So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she and her family landed their own reality TV series called “Douglas Family Gold,” which premiered on Oxygen this spring. And this July, Mattel even unveiled a doll created in her likeness “to remind girls they can be anything.”
Douglas was part of the Fierce Five at the 2012 Summer Olympics, where she was the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. The release of both the show and the doll this year, four years after her claim to fame, reflects that brands believe in her lasting relevance and accessibility.
Shabelman, of Burns Entertainment, estimates that each of Douglas’s national endorsements are in the low six-figures and high five-figures. Olympians who score these kinds of six-figure endorsements generally have “soft skills” in addition to their athletic prowess.
Both Douglas and Biles are very media-friendly, gregarious, and have beaming smiles. “You can tell they have no problem doing interviews and might enjoy them,” Shabelman says. “Things like personality and smiling really do help. You need to enjoy being in the public eye for sponsors to want to team up with you.”
Some athletes have enjoyed spending many years in the spotlight, including 12-time Olympic medalist Dara Torres and three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings. Torres, 49, had retired from swimming — and then came out of retirement — three times. She ditched retirement for the last time (or so we think) for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing at 41 years old. She took home three silver medals that year. Meanwhile, 37-year-old Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, has been dubbed along with her teammate as “the greatest beach volleyball team of all time.”
Their stories have given them long, successful runways because they resonate with a demographic that matters the most when it comes to purchasing power — mothers.
“She had made a big name for herself but got back in shape and competed again. That’s a really good story for marketers and a unique opportunity to build off of that,” Shabelman said. “It’s a great runway for people who are a little bit different and offer a different perspective.”
THE RISE OF INFLUENCERS
Increasingly, however, the rise of social media stars and “influencer” culture may be de-emphasizing the strength of an athlete’s brand.
“In the heyday of the 1970s, ‘80s and even ‘90s, you didn’t have Hollywood celebrities, reality stars, DIY experts or chefs doing commercials. Now influencers are taking the place of Olympians,” Shabelman says.
And even within the Olympic arena, only a few sports have the cachet that can catapult athletes to a level where they have enough lasting brand power that they can remain in the spotlight without people scratching their heads, wondering, “Who is that?”
Swimmers and gymnasts are the two kinds of athletes who can survive beyond the Olympic games, according to Shabelman.
He says that right now influencers and bloggers are the highest in demand for marketers, and companies are scrambling to find the new Michelle Phan or PewDiePie. Glow Recipe CEO Christine Chang told Yahoo Finance that YouTube stars like Kathleen Lights request up to $74,000 for a single mention in one of her videos.
One thing determines whether Olympians can compete with stars like these for advertising dollars.
“Is there a big story that can catapult someone like a Katie Ledecky or a Simone Biles — who perform at the highest level — but aren’t well recognized during the rest of the four years?” Shabelman says. “Unless there is a compelling story of how they got there or something fabulous they did in a big manner, it’s more difficult for some of these Olympians to parlay that to the millions of dollars.”
Of course, not everyone has the option to go after big endorsement deals. Take, for instance, Katie Ledecky, who first won a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics. This year, she broke her own record in the 400-meter freestyle. She doesn’t currently have any deals because she’s going to swim at Stanford in the fall. According to Shabelman, she can’t accept endorsements as they are a sign of leaving amateur status and turning pro.
If she were to forego college swimming like Michael Phelps or leave after starting in college like Missy Franklin, she could have the potential to garner 6-figure deals, says Shabelman.
She can further her narrative at Stanford by accruing more accomplishments, which could give her a compelling story that advertisers may latch onto in the future.
Melody Hahm is a reporter at Yahoo Finance.
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