Olympic deals shift even more to superstars
|Bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor (left), with Lauryn Williams, says she understands why brands are careful in the social media age and its instant communication.
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.
“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.”