Sixteen-year-old swimming phenom Penny Oleksiak left for Rio as a relative unknown and will return as a national treasure. Canadians don’t tend to dominate at the Summer Olympics; Ms. Oleksiak, still a child, has upended that narrative with a record four medals so far and set the stage for possibly a long career continuing to do so. The natural next step, it would seem, would be to sign lucrative endorsements.
She has an undeniable work ethic. She performs under pressure. And yet, she appears guileless, humble and even genuinely shocked every time she wins. It’s the kind of brand-friendly personality marketers love. Her prospects for sponsorship would seem bright.
“I already reached out to find out who her agent is, just to be prepared for my clients when they ask the question,” said Brian Cooper, president and CEO of S&E Sponsorship Group, which counsels companies including Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd., Bank of Nova Scotia and Under Armour on negotiating sponsorship deals.
“She’s definitely going to have some appeal to corporate Canada,” he added.
Mr. Cooper believes that if Ms. Oleksiak signed a deal now, she could likely command six figures for a multiyear commitment. He would likely counsel a client to sign her to a three-year endorsement with a two-year option to renew, in order to monitor how her performance develops as she matures – and to position a brand to carry her into the 2020 Games in Tokyo if she looks poised to contend for medals once again.
“The real, genuine surprise you see in her face isn’t that she didn’t feel she was capable … she’s just blowing herself away,” said Russell Reimer, an athlete representative at Manifesto Sport Management in Calgary, who was in Rio on Friday watching an athlete he works with, Rosie MacLennan, win gold.
“The moments in the pool when she reacts, that’s what touches people. If people fall in love with you … that’s what brands want. How do they make Canadians feel? That association is what they invest in.”
But there is no guarantee that Canadian Olympians – even great ones – will be showered with sponsorship money when they come home. Unlike athletes in pro leagues, who are guaranteed exposure over dozens of games every season in sports such as hockey and basketball, amateur athletes are under an intense spotlight for only a few weeks every four years. Even the most popular summer Olympic sports – gymnastics, track and field, and swimming among them – don’t tend to be followed closely by most people in between Games.
That means the sponsors have to work harder to tell their athletes’ stories, because their events do not command prime broadcast slots and those stories are not dissected through the kind of exhaustive sports coverage that would apply to a star hockey player, for example.
That’s why when Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. signed on as a top-tier Olympic sponsor in Canada in 2013, it committed to including athletes in its marketing even outside of Olympic season. But that kind of advertising over and above endorsement fees takes significant investment.
One thing that could work in Ms. Oleksiak’s favour is that being so young, she is already fluent in social media. In recent years, many athletes have flocked to social media to increase their interactions with fans and thus make themselves more attractive to sponsors. Keeping up a digital persona comes naturally to Ms. Oleksiak, whose effusive, goofy online presence is endearing. She’s as likely to talk about swimming as she is to petition Drake for tickets to his Toronto concert or pose for selfies with her friends. After her performance at these Games, her following has surged to more than 33,000 on Twitter and more than 36,000 on Instagram as of Friday.
“It’s real, it’s not forced,” said Brian Levine, managing director of Envision Sports & Entertainment Inc., who works with athletes including Andre De Grasse and Christine Sinclair. “Social media is becoming such a critical part of any sponsorship.”
Most sponsors look at signing deals with athletes a year before they’re set to go to the Games, Mr. Levine said. But he added there could be an opportunity after Rio for companies that want to secure their relationship with her early, having seen her performance.
A great deal will depend on whether Ms. Oleksiak plans to look south for her postsecondary education. If she wants to take a swimming scholarship, and compete in the National College Athletic Association system in the United States, she cannot be paid to appear in a commercial or for an endorsement, or that could affect her eligibility – even if the deal is done before she is accepted into an NCAA member school.
There is no comparable limitation here in Canada, if Ms. Oleksiak decides to go to college or university closer to home. As a carded athlete (the carding system that is managed by national sport organizations provides top contenders with financial support while training), she could have some of her schooling paid for if she stayed home.
“The calibre of facility, support, sports science that we have at our training centres … is beyond any NCAA option,” said Chris Wilson, director of marketing at Swimming Canada. “That wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”
Should she decide not to keep herself NCAA-eligible, Ms. Oleksiak’s prospects for sponsorship could be good, though they pale in comparison to what she would be looking at if she were a U.S. athlete.
“You’d be talking about much higher numbers based on population alone, not to mention the way the U.S. puts their athletes on a pedestal,” Mr. Cooper said. “But I think she would appeal to a lot of companies.”
SUSAN KRASHINSKY – MARKETING REPORTER
The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 6:11PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016 5:13PM EDT