Gymnastics agent Sheryl Shade strikes gold with Gabby Douglas

Olympic agent Sheryl Shade
When U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas tumbled across the mat, catapulted herself in the air and did a double back flip to close her floor routine and clinch the gold medal during Thursday’s women’s individual all-around competition, the cameras showed her support team — her coach, her mother and her father. But they missed one person.

Sheryl Shade, Douglas’ agent, was seated in the stands cheering as loudly for Douglas as anyone in the arena.

The London Games are Shade’s fifth Olympics, and Douglas is the latest in series of star gymnasts she has represented. Since 1996, she has worked with Dominique Moceanu, Shannon Miller, Paul Hamm, Shawn Johnson and others.

Along the way she has developed a reputation as an expert at connecting with gymnasts, who are typically young, understanding their marketing potential and helping secure the right opportunities for them.

“She’s like a mom to me now,” said Shawn Johnson, who signed with Shade when she was 14 and turned pro. “She’s given me the opportunity to do everything, to have a voice and have my story shared.”

Shade, a Duke graduate, began with gymnasts after receiving a cold call in 1996. She was working with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who is still a client, and was named to Ad Age’s “Marketing 100” list for the year because of her work on Burns’ “Baseball” documentary.

Among Shade's clients is newly minted gold-medalist Gabby Douglas.
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USA Gymnastics President Kathy Scanlan and Vice President Rod Davis called her to see if they could get her help representing some of the professional gymnasts on the team such as Moceanu and Miller.

When the 1996 gymnastics team won gold, USA Gymnastics got her to represent the entire team in negotiating deals with Wheaties and Milk, as well as books written by Miller and Moceanu.

“For people in that space about that time, Sheryl, Peter Carlisle, Evan [Morgenstein] were pioneers,” said Davis, who runs the consultancy Davis Sports Marketing. “Being someone who could relate to young girls and her parents and provide a perspective was part of her success.”

Shade parlayed her success with the 1996 team into work representing gymnasts at the next four Olympics.

“I was the only agent around,” Shade said. “No one was really representing gymnasts. It was every four years, and no one thought you could sustain it. Now there’s a lot more opportunities.”

Shade fits comfortably into the world of gymnastics. Like many of her clients, she is remarkably petite and stands just 5-foot-1. She knows every major sponsorship decision-maker, from Coca-Cola’s Dina Gerson to P&G’s David Palmer, and she also knows all of the Olympic writers and key people at NBC.

Those connections have made it easy for her to push her athletes’ stories and land them deals. Before the Beijing Games, she helped turn Johnson into the sweet, hometown girl from Des Moines, Iowa, who was considered the U.S. team’s best chance to win an all-around gymnastics gold. Though teammate Nastia Liukin won in Beijing, Johnson went on to sign deals with Coca-Cola, P&G and others.

Shade was still working with Johnson when she signed Douglas last March after the gymnast upset teammates Jordyn Wieber and Alexandra Raisman at the AT&T American Cup.

By then, most Olympic sponsors had already signed athletes for their London marketing programs, and Douglas, who had been a relative unknown until then, didn’t have many endorsement opportunities.

Shade managed to land Douglas and her mom a deal with P&G, which is featuring them in their “Raising an Olympian” campaign. She is working on other deals, as well.

“We’re just watching right now,” Shade said. “It is a short amount of time. You don’t have the ability to sign Olympic sponsors (before the Games), but she wants to do Rio, so we’ll see.”

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