The Race Continues

Olympics to fuel recent marketing gains among female athletes, but there’s still much distance to cover.

By Liz Mullen

The talent level of female athletes at the Summer Olympics had already made many of them household names even before they stepped foot in Tokyo. Add in factors such as diversity and inclusion initiatives at corporations and calls for equal pay, and the marketing exposure for them should soon reach new heights.

While agents say female athletes still are far from achieving equality with their male counterparts when it comes to their use in marketing and branding campaigns, this year’s Games features a dominating — and outspoken — lineup of women, and that’s drawn added interest.

Katie Ledecky is among the female athletes who has turned dominating performances into marketing gold.getty images

“I think some of the biggest star athletes in these Olympics are women — whether it’s Katie Ledecky or Simone Manuel or Simone Biles or Sky Brown,” said Lowell Taub, veteran Olympic athlete agent whose clients have included Gabby Douglas, Bode Miller and Shaun White. “There just isn’t necessarily the male firepower that is keeping up with them.”

Endorsement contracts are confidential, but Taub said with that level of talent, he bets that female athletes this year are doing well. “Show me the top four men you are paying and the top four women you are paying at the 2021 Olympics. I can almost guarantee you that their outflow of dollars — the women are beating them.”

Jill Smoller of WME Sports is a pioneering female sports agent who is best known for representing Serena Williams, but she has had superstar male and female athletes for more than 20 years, starting with signing the late Olympic gold-medalist track star Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1997. This year Smoller is involved in the representation of 2021 track and field contenders Sydney McLaughlin and Allyson Felix.

“We are definitely seeing brands more interested in female athletes than they have ever been before, but we still have a long way to go to level the playing field,” Smoller said. “Only in the past few years have we really seen more female athletes featuring prominently in major brand marketing campaigns.”

One reason is Biles, Williams, Naomi Osaka and Megan Rapinoe have become cultural icons, and have been pushing for women’s equality, Smoller said. “They are all unafraid to voice their opinions and expect a seat at the table in all their business dealings.”

Janey Miller, an agent at Octagon, represents Biles, who is already considered to be the greatest gymnast of all time, winning every world, all-around national and Olympic competition she’s entered for the last eight years.

Biles has invented four signature moves for gymnasts and recently became the first female gymnast to land the Yurchenko double pike vault. Asked why she did it, in a Muhammad Ali-type moment, Biles responded, “Because I can.”

Miller agrees with Smoller that women still have “a long way to go” in achieving an equitable distribution of marketing dollars. She said Biles will continue to play an important role in the broader movement for a more equitable distribution of marketing spend toward female athletes. “Simone is in a unique position to continue to push this conversation forward.”

Miller credits Williams and the entire U.S. women’s national soccer team as athletes who continue to push for equality. She said she is seeing a change in how women are portrayed in advertising in the last few years.

“We are all familiar with the dichotomy that had developed between male athletes whose marketing value was primarily dependent upon pure competitive success and elements of character, versus female athletes who were more typically attracting marketing and media exposure based on looks and sex appeal,” Miller said. “Although an unfortunate component of the industry, we are seeing some very significant changes in the way that certain corporate sponsors are utilizing their female marketing expenditures.”

CAA Brand Consulting executive Andrea Weckstein said Biles is forging a new model for the sport of gymnastics. “Not only is she the first woman to land new skills, but she is helping redefine female power in sports by dismantling unhealthy notions of what it takes to succeed and how a female champion is allowed to look.”

Other women who are at the forefront of the movement are tennis players Williams and Osaka, soccer player Rapinoe and the group of women who formed a new media and commerce company called TOGETHXR — Manuel, Sue Bird, Chloe Kim and Alex Morgan, Weckstein said.

One of the trends driving more investment in female athletes by brands is an open acknowledgement of gender inequality, Weckstein added. “Nike has been supporting women in sports for nearly 50 years, but when the company declared 2019 its ‘Year for Women’ with the launch of their Dream Crazier campaign, that is really where we started to see this movement take shape,” Weckstein said. “They put women’s sports at the center of their campaign, which created a call to action for women in sports to fight back against unfair stereotyping and gender bias.”

Jessica Robertson, TOGETHXR chief content officer, believes the push on using more female athletes in different types of marketing is just beginning. “Some companies and brands have made big and conscious investments in women athletes and women’s sports — AT&T, Google, Visa all come to mind — and where one leads others will follow,” Robertson said. “We’re seeing increased investment in the space. In recent years, it may have seemed like a risk to invest in women athletes or women’s sports due to a perceived lack of interest, but the greatest risk now is not investing. There’s also significant demand from consumers calling on brands to commit to inclusion and equity.” 

Sydney McLaughlin recently was named a brand ambassador for TAG Heuer watches.getty images

Peter Carlisle, Octagon managing director, Olympics and action sports, and agent to Michael Phelps and Aly Raisman, said the push by consumers and corporations to be more diverse and more inclusive is a big part of the increase in marketing of female athletes, but there is an even bigger factor.

“Inclusiveness is a bigger deal now, and diversification is a bigger deal now,” Carlisle said. “But in my opinion the biggest difference is social media, which allows these athletes to build their own audience.”

Two decades ago, Olympic athletes had a much shorter window to capitalize on their success in the Games and the way brands viewed athletes was much more transactional.

“Twenty years ago, it was … ‘Did they win? Did they lose? What did they look like?’” Carlisle recalled. “Because you didn’t know anything about these athletes. It was like two weeks before the Games, they started appearing on Readers Digest or Time. And then at the Games. And then after the Games, maybe a late night show, and after that, ‘See you later.’”

Now, because of social media, athletes have their own platforms to get their messages across to fans. People know them for years before and after the Olympics and really get to know them as people, including what they care about and their struggles. Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, has a deal with Talkspace, a therapy company, because he’s spoken publicly about his battle with anxiety and depression. “Michael is talking about mental health,” Carlisle said. “Think about it — no one was doing deals in mental health.”

Carlisle client Raisman, meanwhile, has been outspoken about body-shaming and the false narrative that women should all look like fashion models. She has a deal with a company called Aerie, a fashion brand that focuses on the beauty of real women with no air-touching in its marketing campaigns.

“She could speak out about it — she had a platform to speak out about it,” Carlisle said of Raisman’s use of social media to highlight the issue. “She talks about it and when she talks about it, companies that did not previously do business in sports with athletes reach out. They weren’t doing it to be politically correct. They aren’t doing it so like, ‘Let’s appear to be inclusive.’ That is their marketing strategy.”

Jaymee Messler is the former CMO at Excel Sports Marketing and the co-founder of The Players’ Tribune, which gave athletes a long-form platform to talk about issues like mental health, addiction or whatever personal battle they faced as well as what they really cared about. Messler said that storytelling by athletes is a big reason why women are getting more deals, including endorsements that are more authentic to who they really are as human beings.

Messler said the rise in deals also aided the increased diversity among decision-makers at corporations. But she agrees with Carlisle that the ability of women to tell their own stories is an even bigger reason brands are using women and their real personalities to tell their stories.

“That is a big difference from 15 to 20 years ago to today,” Messler said. “Fifteen years ago, you had to be a champion, a gold medalist or the very best of the best or you had to be the most beautiful or the best looking.”

Now all athletes are being shown for who they really are, including the fact that they are not perfect. And brands are finding that approach is a winning strategy with consumers.

“The point is when you are authentic, you become more relatable,” Messler said. “So more people have something in common with you. Twenty years ago, it was about creating these icons that were out of your reach — you looked up to them, but you could never be them.”

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