Most athletes in the Olympics do it for love. There’s some fame and notoriety but if you aren’t having fun, what’s the point? It’s hard to make money in sports. While we hear of the big paydays from Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt, and Michael Phelps, the Olympics remind us every four (this time five) years, there are a number of obscure sports out there that are played with the same passion and fervor as the big money makers.
NCAA to the Olympics
Until today, making money in small sports was very difficult. It still is, but it is getting a little bit easier. For example, we mentioned the new NCAA NIL rules, which gives college athletes the ability to make money off of their name, image, and likeness, possibly helping the more obscure athletes be able to turn pro and train full time for their respective sports.
Even so, many of these sponsorship dollars are focused on American athletes. Ever so rarely, do we get to learn of an athlete like Australian sprinter Riley Day, who works at Woolworths’ in Australia who was able to give herself a television shout out and triple her Instagram following.
Women’s gymnastics gets a disproportionate amount of air time on television, but gives these athletes a chance to capitalize on their new found fame. Nastia Liukin, the Olympics’ Gold All Around medalist in 2008, makes a great living as an influencer as well as a commentator on the gymnastics portion of the Olympics. A lot of other female gymnasts from Gabby Douglas to Shawn Johnson have made a living endorsing a variety of products.
While sports like gymnastics, track and field, and swimming showcase an athletes face, imagine sports like fencing, ice hockey, skiing, baseball, softball, BMX, bobsled, or luge where athletes image and likeness are obscured. In addition, the more obscure the sport the harder it is to get sponsors. Sports like curling, synchronized swimming, and shooting currently have limited audiences.
Even in today’s fragmented world, without television time, you won’t have the chance to build that online following. However, every so often one of these athletes, like Apollo Ohno, the US short track speed skater, breaks through to the mainstream, where he also received deals with McDonalds, General Electric, Vicks, and Coca-Cola. It didn’t hurt that he was also the most decorated American Winter athlete in history with eight medals.
Audiences are attracted to the rags to riches story, even in athletics. Audiences also love that many of these athletes have trained their entire lives for one moment. It’s like putting everything on a single number in roulette. Sponsors like to be associated with hardship and gutsiness as well as being the best in their particular discipline.
Liukin works with sponsors including GK Elite Sportswear, Longines, Visa and AT&T. After all, everyone wants to know what the best products are and if it’s good enough for the world champion it’s good enough for you.
People want to live vicariously through these athletes and following them on social media is a great way to see what it would be like to be an actual athlete in the Olympics. They want to live through the ups, the downs, the heartbreaks, and the triumphs without the actual investment of it being their own life. In other words, they want you to be an influencer. The aspiring athletes also want to know what you eat, how you live, how you workout, and how you keep cool and collected on the world’s stage.
Unfortunately the best way to build a following and win sponsorships is one of the hardest ways. It’s somewhat of a catch-22 to win a gold medal. You need time to train, but if you are an older athlete (or outside of your parent’s guardianship) you need to support yourself with a job which takes away from time to train. Once you win a gold the endorsements might come in.
As Ohno apes potential sponsors, in the HBO documentary The Weight Of Gold (2020), “How many golds do you have because if you’re silver, you’re not making money. You’re bronze? You’re not making money. You didn’t medal? I don’t even know your name, pal. Go back to the end of the line, OK?” Well, I guess we all have our work cut out for us, so go out there and bring home that Gold Medal from the Olympics.
Are you an athlete looking for your opportunity? We’d love to hear from you. Email us with your story on how you balance life and training.