Tokyo 2020: Athletes to watch
More than 600 Americans will compete for Team USA next year at the Tokyo Olympics, but the overwhelming share of non-endemic endorsement income will flow to the top 5% — a trend that’s accelerated in recent years as corporate marketing budgets get more scrutiny and brands become more risk-averse.
Some of those commercial stars are already household names, like swimmer Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles — or even 12-time Olympic medalist swimmer Ryan Lochte, who’s eyeing a comeback after a lengthy doping suspension.
There’s no one path to Olympic commercial success. Competitive excellence is necessary, but not all golds are created equal. Individual sports that occur during U.S. prime time count more, multiple events help and NBC’s choices of which sports go on the prime-time show instead of cable have big implications. Brands tend to look for distinctive personal stories and representation across demographic groups. Good looks, an outgoing personality or a strong desire to develop on-camera skills help, too.
The Olympic formula always includes a few up-and-comers, breakouts who go from obscure to American heroes almost overnight. The team is far from set — most won’t actually qualify for many months — but the following nine athletes are likely to emerge and cash in, based on interviews with agents, brand consultants, talent scouts and sports officials.
Track & Field
Agent: Mark Whetmore, Global Athletics & Marketing
Jamaican Usain Bolt, the dominant personality in men’s sprinting for three straight Olympics, has retired. That sets the stage for Americans to reclaim their traditional places in the marquee 100- and 200-meter dashes. Enter Noah Lyles, who has earned a reputation as a great personality and one of the world’s fastest men. After originally committing to Florida in 2016, he signed with Adidas that summer. On July 5, Lyles ran the fourth-fastest 200 meters ever at a meet in Switzerland.
Other than Biles, the makeup of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team is up in the air. But the team is always a centerpiece of NBC’s coverage, and the 18-year-old Hurd is the most likely Olympic newbie to emerge. She won the all-around competition at the 2017 World Championships and stands out in other ways, too: She was born in China before being adopted by American parents and is one of the few elite gymnasts to wear glasses while competing. One caveat: She hasn’t yet hired an agent, retaining her NCAA eligibility pending more clarity on her Olympic future.
Agent: Tina Andrew
Andrew, 20, has upended the conventional approach to his sport as an athlete and as a businessman. He turned pro at 14, the youngest ever for an American swimmer, is repped by his mother and is trained by his father, Peter, who uses an unusually aggressive approach. Andrew was the top money winner on the new FINA Champions Swim Series this year, thanks in part to his strategy of competing as often as possible. That’s good news for sponsors and NBC — he aims to compete in the sprint distances in all four swim strokes, which means lots of time on camera.
Track & Field
Agents: Brandon Swibel, Rubicon; HSInternational Sports Management
Everything that can be said for Noah Lyles goes for Coleman, too. These two could finish gold-silver, in either order, on the biggest stage. Coleman is part of Nike’s team and has a flair for fashion that could come in handy. “One of the most popular athletes among Americans over the last three Olympics has been a Jamaican sprinter,” one veteran Olympic sports strategist said. “Imagine if you’re able to take the Jamaican flag out of his hands and make it an American one.”
Agent: Lowell Taub, CAA Sports
Huston is an established star in the skateboarding world with 3.2 million Instagram followers and a long list of sponsors that already includes Nike and Monster Energy. But when the sport makes its Olympic debut, he’ll almost certainly be the standard bearer for its march into the mainstream. And he’ll manage that crossover well, said one longtime action sports observer. “He’s a rare combination of really good contest skater plus really well-respected by the core of the skateboarding community.”
Agent: Mike Parsons, IMG
A veteran of the surf scene who’s still only 24, Peterson has been contending on the world tour and endorsing products for nearly a decade. But qualification will be tough: She’s locked in a tight scramble for the second spot on the Olympic team with fellow Americans Courtney Conlogue and Caroline Marks halfway through the World Surf League season.
Track & Field
Agents: Rob Koslowsky and Jill Smoller, WME; Wes Felix, Evolve Agency
In 2016, the 16-year-old McLaughlin was the youngest person to make the U.S. Olympic track team since 1980. Since then, she’s competed for Kentucky, gone pro and signed with New Balance, and just inked another deal with Gatorade. Insiders say she’ll face an uphill battle to emerge based on performance alone — she’s only pursuing one individual event, the 400-meter hurdles, which has not historically created a lot of superstars. But with few other U.S. female sprinters on the horizon, she may have the space to herself. Also, experts praise her commercial instincts, social media savvy and looks, which has helped her amass an Instagram following of 377,000 that outranks a lot of Olympic medalists. As one insider said: “She is the next ‘Flo-Jo’ in terms of just being so much bigger than the sport.”
Track & Field
Agent: Wes Felix, Evolve Agency
A 2016 Olympian just after she finished high school, the U.S.’s best high jumper and daughter of former NFL great Randall Cunningham is eyeing a return to the Games at the more seasoned age of 22. But her Instagram feed shows more: An athlete with a knack for fashion, the hippest sneakers around — and her time on the modeling runway for Nike at Paris Fashion Week last fall.
Agent: Brandon Swibel, Rubicon
The current world record holder and Rio silver medalist in the 100-meter backstroke, Baker is a serious contender to medal in three individual events and some relays. She’s also forthcoming about her battle with Crohn’s disease, giving her a standout story and a special entrée into the health and wellness sector. In addition, she’s the biggest women’s talent under contract with swimwear giant Speedo since Tyr Sport nabbed Ledecky and Simone Manuel last year, which figures to give her a big visibility boost.
Editor’s note: This story is updated from the print edition.