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Volume 27 No. 88
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USOPC Launching New Marketing Portal For Team USA Athletes

The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee is launching a new marketing portal for Team USA athletes. The Athlete Marketing Platform, which is being built in partnership with athlete marketing facilitator Opendorse, will become available for Team USA athletes to join in January and go into full effect in March. The initiative will be formally announced later today.

At its core, the platform is intended to provide an avenue for more Team USA athletes to access sponsorship money that’s often not available at an individual level. “It’s really the idea of trying to look and see, from an athlete standpoint, how we could have more athletes have an opportunity to engage with partners and have earning potential on their individual brands,” said USOPC Chief of Athlete Services Bahati VanPelt.

The opt-in pilot program will run through March 2022 and offer eligible athletes access to several new earning opportunities. A select group of Team USA members will be able to participate in group marketing and licensing, while a wider pool of athletes will have access to an individual marketing platform that allows for the negotiation of one-on-one deals with potential partners. That structure could still be tweaked before the program is finalized.

The platform is intended to provide more access to sponsorship money that’s often not available
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The new initiative is intended to address a widespread desire among Team USA athletes for additional earning opportunities. “The perception has been that there is a small group of high-level athletes that have had opportunities to engage with partners, and that there is a significant number of athletes that do not have that same opportunity or mechanism to work with partners and develop a relationship that could lead to marketing opportunities,” said VanPelt. “That has come through loud and clear.”

The group marketing program will initially be available to only top finishers -- top eight for individuals or top six for team events -- at the most recent world championship or equivalent event, as determined by each sport’s national governing body. Team USA members who opt into group marketing will receive $1,250 per year to make their name, image and likeness available for USOPC partners to use in marketing and activations; that amount will be paid in full regardless of whether or not the athlete is ultimately used in brand marketing during the year.

Athletes will also be able to opt out of specific categories where there may be conflicts with existing sponsors, and they will have the opportunity to approve how their imagery will be used. Participating brands are required to use at least three athletes, each of whom must be from a different national governing body. Athletes who participate in group marketing can also opt into a merchandise licensing program, from which they would receive an additional royalty for the sale of Team USA products featuring them.

Individual marketing is open to Olympic or Paralympic qualifiers and all competitors at the most recent world championship or equivalent event. Participating members of Team USA will have the ability to set their price for various levels of engagement and negotiate deals with brands directly through the platform, similar to how the existing Opendorse platform works.

Opendorse co-Founder & CEO Blake Lawrence said that nearly 200 Team USA athletes already use the company’s platform, and the goal is to reach over 1,000 users during the pilot program. “When you’re thinking with only the gold medalists in mind, you’re missing the value of Team USA, and the depth and different types of athletes here that are underrepresented,” said Lawrence. “Technology is the only way to help them capitalize on these moments every four years.”

Opendorse was selected by the USOPC in July following an RFP process the prior month. The USOPC has also tabbed agency Athletes First to provide pricing guidance and best practices to Team USA members, who often don’t have independent representation.

The year-long test run will have the benefit of operating during the Olympic and Paralympic Games in both Tokyo and Beijing. “It’s one of those silver linings of the postponement,” said USOPC Chief Strategy & Growth Officer Katie Bynum, who, along with VanPelt, helped guide the USOPC’s approach to building the athlete marketing platform over the last year-plus. “We had a bit more time to work on this concept ... and now we have an opportunity with both summer and winter athletes to consider testing and piloting the concept, and learning from it.”

USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said, “AMP was born from a shared recognition that empowering Team USA athletes to expand marketing and earning opportunities is the right thing to do for athletes, and an opportunity to elevate Olympic and Paralympic sport broadly. This program will link the incredible athletes and personalities at the heart of the Olympic and Paralympic movements with the innovative Team USA partners who help tell their stories.”

Early reactions to the initiative have been mixed, though most agree that the USOPC is at least aiming to provide a much-needed solution. “I’m glad to see the thinking heading that direction,” said one national governing body CEO. “Some of the athletes are actually able to earn a living from the sport that they do … (but) we also have young kids who don’t get any support from sponsors. It’s trying to figure out the middle ground and make their path and participation in the Olympic movement be meaningful and help support their lives.”

Among early concerns for NGBs is that athletes being used in group marketing could create potential conflicts with existing or prospective sponsors. Some in the NGB world also don’t expect to see a flood of money toward lesser-known athletes. “There’s a reason why USOPC partners aren’t already working with athletes in the sports that don’t have as high visibility as others,” said US Biathlon President & CEO Max Cobb. “That is because it’s not how they want to use their resources, with time being a critical resource.”

An NGB working group led by U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association President & CEO Tiger Shaw has been working with the USOPC to address final details still being ironed out. Multiple athlete agents have also expressed early concerns over the platform, arguing that the group marketing payout is too small and highlighting potential conflicts of interest created by the USOPC playing intermediary between brands and Team USA athletes, who are not represented by a union.

“The USOPC can't be both management and talent representation for athletes that may not have agents,” said agent Brant Feldman, who represents several Olympians and Paralympians. “If you think of group licensing or how the big four sports unions, along with other sports, regulate group marketing, there is a group on the other side whose only role is to work on behalf of the athletes to help them get fair market value. I do applaud innovation, but I also want to see all athletes in all classes be treated fairly and in a similar way as their counterparts in other disciplines. Possibly it is time for Olympic and Paralympic athletes to unionize and seek counsel from big four sports unions and SAG-AFTRA for guidance moving forward.”

VanPelt contends that the USOPC is not taking an advisory role. “We are not representing athletes,” said VanPelt. “What we’re doing here is trying to create an opportunity to simplify the mechanics of athletes and partners developing relationships and business opportunities together. It’s not like we’re creating something that is not currently available. We’re just expanding the opportunity for more athletes to take advantage of an environment that already exists.”

As for criticisms of the payout amount, VanPelt said the value was determined through conversations with Team USA athletes, and that it’s intended to be a single, additive component of the USOPC’s broader athlete support services.

The new initiative follows last year’s overhaul of “Rule 40,” which loosened restrictions on brands marketing around the Olympic and Paralympic Games.