Many Olympic hopefuls live and die by sponsorship deals. Not to discount the incredible amounts of dedication, talent, and drive it takes to become a world-class athlete, the truth of the matter is that there are a lot of great athletes out there. To succeed (i.e. get sponsors), athletes have to become great storytellers, self-promoters, and differentiators to cut through the clutter.
How does an athlete do this? That is, how does an athlete market his or herself in a genuine way?
To illustrate my point, I would like to compare two track and field athletes. Dawn Harper Nelson grew up in a Midwestern town, had humble beginnings and is outspoken about her Christian faith. She has plenty of spunk and personality, often showcasing wild hairstyles during competition. More importantly, with an Olympic gold medal from 2008 and a silver medal from 2012, she is one of the most successful hurdlers in American history. Yet, she had no sponsor going into 2008 and now only has one (Nike). She only has 10.5K Twitter followers and little notoriety outside of her sport.
Lolo Jones also grew up in the Midwest, faced a difficult childhood, and is very vocal about her faith. Although she competed in the same two Olympics as Harper Nelson (and forayed into winter sports as a bobsledder at the 2014 Sochi games), she has no hardware to show for it. Yet, Lolo has major deals with Asics and Red Bull, appeared on Dancing with the Stars, made it into the ESPN The Magazine Body Issue and has more followers than any other U.S. track and field athlete on Twitter (414,000 to be exact).
So, what’s the difference? In the battle for attention, why does Lolo’s celebrity trump Harper Nelson’s Olympic success? I would argue that it comes down to the use of an agent.
Back in 2010, Jones had a track agent, but didn’t have any help in the marketing department. Then, she got a random call from an agency in New York City that explained to her how she needed an agent on the business side. This was very unusual at the time, even for an Olympian, but Lolo has since recognized how crucial having an agent has been to elevating her profile above other hurdlers.
After receiving criticism from her medal-winning U.S. teammates in 2012 over her “unearned” publicity, Lolo retaliated: “I’ll say this of Dawn and Kellie, I know that they didn’t have marketing agents. So if they want to blame me for getting the deals because I’m pretty, or other various things, I think when it comes down to it, I was also the only one who had a marketing person.” Jones was initially known for her tragic fall over the penultimate hurdle in the 2008 Olympics. Her marketing team capitalized on that momentum to turn her into a media maven.
PR battles like this abound in Olympic sport. In Beijing in 2008, Shawn Johnson was considered the favorite heading into the all-around gymnastics competition. However, Nastia Liukin was the one that walked out with the gold medal. According to Mary Lou Rhetton, people forget that Shawn didn’t win the gold in the all-around. Why is that?
Well, as you can guess, Johnson had an agent that worked on a marketing plan a full year prior to the Games. Focusing on Johnson’s bubbly personality and unbeatable smile, the agent landed deals with Adidas, Coke, and McDonald’s long before Johnson and Liukin hit the gym in Beijing. Even before she returned home to Iowa, Johnson’s agent was in talks with Dancing with the Stars. The lesson to be learned here is that preparation, planning, and a little luck are the keys to crafting a successful marketing campaign.
When the world’s best gather in Rio this summer, we will likely see more instances of mismatched celebrity to athletic accomplishment. Some athletes will capitalize on their Olympic exposure more than others, possibly because they hired a better agency. As much as I wish that great athletes could be remembered above all else for their skill on the field of play, that’s not how it goes in the dog-eat-dog world of athlete marketing.