Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 41


Editor’s note: This story is updated from the print edition.

Martina Navratilova once said she lost $10 million in endorsements when she told the world she was gay in 1981. A generation later, coming out of the closet was undeniably good business for Gus Kenworthy, a freestyle skier who has vaulted into the upper tier of marketable Team USA athletes heading into the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

As a good-looking, outgoing silver medalist who helped rescue stray dogs in Sochi, Kenworthy would have had plenty of calls from sponsors regardless. But when he told ESPN Magazine in 2015 he’s gay, he added the factor that makes all the difference to marketers: A distinctive personal story that highlights a diversity theme.

He’s already signed with Visa, Toyota, Ralph Lauren, Deloitte and 24 Hour Fitness, and his agent, Wasserman’s Michael Spencer, says at least two more Olympic deals are coming. Those are on top of his long-term relationships with Monster Energy, Atomic skis and Smith goggles. He’ll be featured in Visa’s marketing and extensively profiled on NBC broadcasts. Olympic insiders say nearly every USOC or IOC sponsor inquired about his availability.

Gus Kenworthy, a silver medalist in Sochi, has signed several deals heading into 2018.
“It’s absolutely true — I think I’m more marketable now as an out athlete,” Kenworthy said. “Every brand is looking for diversity, and it’s an important thing for brands to have diversity, more so than it’s ever been.”

Kenworthy, 26, says he doesn’t want to be known only for his sexual orientation, and he’s talked with sponsors about finding the right balance in their personality-based campaigns. But he’s eager for the wider platform to speak to those struggling with their sexuality.

“If I had seen an out gay athlete who was getting big sponsors and having a successful career and doing well competitively — that would have given me so much hope,” he said.

Olympic partners have always been more invested in diversity than most sports marketers, because of the relative anonymity of the athletes and the unpredictability of Olympic qualifying. “You need a well-rounded team,” said David Schwab, founder of Octagon First Call and a consultant to brands. “You hear that so often. And one that is symbolic of America, and that could be gender, age, disability, sexual orientation or sport.”

Some sponsors, like Visa, are specifically looking to tell a message of acceptance. “We certainly like individuals who stand for the concept of acceptance, and the concept of diversity,” said Chris Curtin, chief brand and innovation marketing officer. “And not just stand for it themselves, but embrace it in others as well.”

Others just want athletes who authentically garner public interest beyond their niche sports, Schwab said. At the recent Team USA media summit, more than a dozen reporters swarmed Kenworthy’s stage for 45 minutes while other Olympians held court with groups of three or four.

If anything, Kenworthy is just catching up to corporate America’s demand. Many big businesses have funded gay pride celebrations for decades and are eager to be seen as progressive. During the Rio Games, Nike hired transgender duathlete Chris Mosier to appear in a commercial despite his sport not even being in the Olympics.

Out Olympians are hardly unprecedented, said Jim Buzinski, co-founder of Outsports, a website devoted to gay issues in sports. Fifty-five openly gay athletes competed in Rio in 2016, up from 23 in London in 2012. Seven competed in Sochi in 2014, according to Outsports. But relatively few have been American, and the best-known gay Olympians came out after their careers peaked, such as Greg Louganis or Brian Boitano.

That makes Kenworthy the first athlete who has undeniably profited from, not merely survived, the coming-out process.

Despite his silver medal and Sochi dogs story, Kenworthy is largely unknown outside of skiing circles. About 8 percent of Americans know his name, according to the Davie-Brown Index, compared to 62 percent knowing the most famous active U.S. Winter Olympian, Shaun White. In part due to his coming out, Kenworthy will grow much more famous in the coming months.

“It’s unique,” Buzinski said. “It’s encouraging and inspiring. [Coming out] is a very personal process, but if you’re ready, that’d be a reason to do it. Who would Gus Kenworthy be if he didn’t come out? No offense, but freestyle skiers are not exactly household names.”

Bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor (left), with Lauryn Williams, says she understands why brands are careful in the social media age and its instant communication.
The consolidation of Olympic endorsement deals at the very upper echelon of Team USA has accelerated this year as sponsors appear less willing than ever to take chances, a wide range of Olympic agents say.

Most Olympic deals have always gone to the one or two dozen top athletes out of hundreds who compose the team, but corporate budget cutting, conservative marketing strategy and the crowded new media landscape are combining to accelerate that trend, they say.

“I do see it a bit more pronounced this cycle,” said Lowell Taub, an agent at CAA Sports who represents snowboarder Chloe Kim, part of the upper tier of endorsement heavy hitters. “There’s a short list of superstars that are commanding a lot of opportunities. And brands say wherever we draw the line at superstars in the budget, there’s a dropoff to what they’re able to offer to the returning veterans or the newcomers, so there definitely is a focus and flight to the super top-tier talent.”

Eight agents said that, in general, there appear to be fewer athlete deals available overall than for Sochi or Vancouver, a possible result of a general decrease in activation for the Pyeongchang Games and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s loss of several key consumer-facing sponsors.

Shiffrin's deals done

Defending World Cup champion skier Mikaela Shiffrin’s endorsement dance card is full for the Pyeongchang Games, her agent Kilian Albrecht said. She’s signed just two deals specifically related to the 2018 Games: Visa and Bose headphones, adding to her long-term portfolio that includes Red Bull, Barilla, Longines, Oakley and ski equipment makers Atomic, Leki and Reusch. Only Visa and Oakley are Olympic sponsors.
Albrecht said he’d always listen to a compelling offer, but between Shiffrin’s training for up to five events and commitments to existing sponsors, there’s no time left for additional marketing work.
Ben Fischer
“If you cut that roster down, you’re still going to go with the sure bets, and if there’s room, only then you go with an up-and-comer,” said Wasserman’s Michael Spencer, who represents freeskiers Gus Kenworthy and Torin Yater-Wallace and others.

Marketers are under intense internal pressure to demonstrate returns on their sports budgets, said veteran agent Sheryl Shade, who represents freestyle skier Mac Bohonnon, who has a deal with Coca-Cola.

“You can’t be risk-taking these days, and you can’t have an unknown and all of a sudden they don’t make the team,” Shade said. “That puts them in a bad situation. So they go with the givens, the ones they know are going to be there, at least on the team, if not on the podium.”

For brands that sponsor a full team of athletes, the spots have become highly regimented by sport, ethnicity, disability and gender. That means that any given athlete really only has one or two spots available to him or her.

That’s been good news for Paralympians, or athletes who represent an uncommon ethnicity or have an especially unusual backstory. But it also leaves the vast majority of Olympians in a harder spot.

Several key Olympic sponsors, including Procter & Gamble, United Airlines and Comcast, have not yet announced their athlete deals, so the dynamic could still evolve. But most negotiations have been underway throughout the summer, giving agents a good sense of the overall market.

The social media age has led to some counter-intuitive outcomes, one agent said. While it’s in some ways easier to develop a commercial identity for an athlete, some Olympians already have a robust following. That makes it harder for a true unknown to catch up during the relatively short Pyeongchang marketing window.

Bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic medalist who’s signed with Coca-Cola and Deloitte so far, said she doesn’t think sponsors have any obligation to help individual athletes via endorsement deals. They’re doing that already through their overarching USOC or International Olympic Committee relationship, she said, and brands have to be extremely careful in an age of instant communication.

“You can’t just frivolously select athletes,” she said. “You have to be really thorough and in-depth about who represents you anymore.”