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A gold medal is nice, but it’s not a springboard to fame and fortune for most Olympians.
For athletes not named Michael Phelps or Simone Biles, it can be challenging to capitalize on even medal-worthy performances.
“It’s really random. There will be a couple who will be able to take advantage of it and it certainly has to happen right now,” said Richard Burton, David Falk professor of sport management at Syracuse University. “Timing right now is everything for some of these sports that are less visible.”
The very element of surprise that can produce a breakout star makes it harder for marketers to identify in advance who they want to approach, and the four-year break between games means that even a star sportsman or woman might not have the same performance or name recognition by the time the next Olympics roll around.
“It’s more about finding the athletes you think are going to be big in the Olympics and taking a chance on them,” said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising. “It is a little more of a guessing game.”
In some cases, the athletes take themselves out of the running. Swimmers Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, for instance, are both going to Stanford University and swimming for the school, and can’t be sponsored or receive other pay-to-play arrangements as per National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.
If there’s one thing Olympic athletes know, it’s how to move fast — which is what sports-marketing experts say they’ll have to do if they want to capitalize on their golden glow.
Given the scope of the Games, the sheer number of athletes makes it hard for one who isn’t a known quantity to break out, although experts say unknowns in popular sports have a better shot than ones in less-mainstream sports like fencing.
“It’s very difficult, particularly if you’re not a top-name athlete — the best you can hope for is deals with equipment-based companies that will sponsor you,” Dorfman said.
Sports-marketing experts say the International Olympics Committee’s Rule 40, which deals with using the Games for marketing purposes, can also be a hurdle. Rule 40 is the reason why athletes have to tape over brand names and can only give shout-outs to their sponsors before and after the Games (the IOC imposes a blackout period). Smaller brands might not want to risk the hassle and potential costs.
There’s also the matter of timing. If there’s one thing Olympic athletes know, it’s how to move fast — which is what sports-marketing experts say they’ll have to do if they want to capitalize on their golden glow.
“Post-Olympics, it’s challenging," said Scott Kirkpatrick, partner at Chicago Sports & Entertainment Partners. "It’s tough because once the roar dies down… there’s definitely an ebb and flow,”
“NFL season is about to begin, MLB is kicking into high gear, college football is starting up — if you’re not ready now, you’re too late,” Burton said.
“I’d say if they don’t seize on this by October it’s too late,” said Robert Dilenschneider, founder and principal of PR and branding firm The Dilenschneider Group.
Events and appearances are one way for athletes to earn money post-competition — the U.S. gymnastics team, for instance, has a two-month tour sponsored by Kellogg’s, which Dorfman estimated could net participating athletes in the “low six figures.”
The speaking circuit is another possibility. “Another place where they can make money is they can go on speaking tours or they can write books,” Dilenschneider said.
“If they’re going to get into speaking then, like their training, they need to work on their speaking. That’s a skill and a talent unto itself,” he said. “It still takes that dedicated effort and work.”
Many Olympic athletes do have regular day jobs as everything from accountants to firefighters. This year, Sponsors EY (formerly Ernst & Young) and Visa are both launching programs to help foster the post-Olympic careers of athletes.
“That’s a great PR move by them,” Dorfman said, adding that it could be beneficial from a business standpoint because these athletes already have a (sometimes literal) track record of discipline and a strong work ethic.
Initiatives like this could help the athletes, too. “Unless you’re the greatest of all time or close to it, it’s very hard to extend your shelf life,” Dorfman said.