Simone Biles competed in the women’s balance beam final yesterday, a dramatic return after she unexpectedly pulled out of the team event and subsequently withdrew from four individual events due to mental health struggles over the last week. The star gymnast took bronze in the balance beam.
Typically speaking, earning a place on the Olympic podium enhances an athlete’s marketing value. But former Anheuser-Busch marketing chief Tony Ponturo said Biles’ disappointing Olympiad—at least by her standards (she still bagged a team silver in addition to the individual bronze)—has made her 10-15% less marketable than she was prior to Tokyo.
Our Take: To be clear, Ponturo was not being critical of Biles’ decision to put mental health first. He was simply explaining that there are now nuances prospective brand partners must consider before deciding if/and/how to use her in campaigns, and as a result, there is likely to be less interest overall. “Before it was just, here’s this 24-year old decorated gymnast and [the marketing message] was largely about her performance and the medals,” he said. “Now, [companies] have to look at her as a broader brand. It can’t just be about performance because she didn’t really compete in Tokyo. It has to be different messaging, and that is not going to be a fit for everybody.” For the record, Ponturo does not believe Biles will be forced to take a haircut on deals with the 85-90% of brands that remain interested.
Olympians often try to capitalize on their newfound fame and athletic success in the wake of the Games. But despite the relatively short window that exists for Olympic athletes to cash in, Ponturo said he would advise Biles to take it easy for the next three to six months. “It would be awkward for her to return from [this] Olympics and [immediately] sign a big marketing deal,” he said. Remember, major sponsorship and endorsement pacts come with added responsibility and pressure—not ideal for someone who appears to need a break.
Ponturo said he would tell sponsors interested in aligning with Biles to hit the pause button, too. Companies need “to understand what the Simone Biles brand is going to be moving forward,” he said. “Is it a performance brand (i.e. will she continue to compete) or is she going to be a voice young people listen to about mental health issues?”
Athletes First Partners’ chief growth officer Jene Elzie does not believe Biles’ relative lack of success in Tokyo makes her any less marketable. But she acknowledges the companies that value her name, image, likeness and platform may be different now. The former Stanford gymnast-turned-sports marketer said, “Any brand looking to talk about resilience or that aligns with empowerment and using your own voice is very much a fit,” she said.
It should be noted there are more socially conscious brands in the marketplace today than at any time in recent history. Scout Sports and Entertainment founder Michael Neuman said, “More brands are making marketing decisions based on what message is going to impact the greatest number of consumers or if they will be on the right side of history.”
Biles came into the Tokyo Olympics widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time. So, there is certainly an argument to be made that she could still be the face of a brand’s performance-focused campaign. But Neuman points out that these messages are not mutually exclusive. “There isn’t a conflict with her being involved in both [the mental health and performance] conversations, so I see the circle of potential sponsors getting wider for her,” he said. Of course, there “is less money and a smaller fan of brands that want to tap into messaging around mental health [than performance],” he noted, which is why Biles could still end up with a net sponsor loss.
If Biles decides to use her platform to promote mental health awareness on behalf of a brand (a non-branded campaign is also an option), Ponturo suggests she donate any fees collected to the cause. “She wouldn’t want it to look like she was taking advantage of what she went through [in Tokyo] from a monetary standpoint,” he said.
Even if Biles isn’t sought after by brands seeking recent success, from a consumer point of view, Hernando Ruiz-Jimenez (CMO, New York Presbyterian Hospital) thinks she’ll remain “as marketable or be even more marketable than before.” Unlike previous generations, today’s young people view mental health struggles “no different than breaking an arm, a leg, an ankle or shoulder. So, if that happened during competition, everyone would say tough break, but we understand,” Ponturo said. That is the way he and Ruiz-Jimenez believe the public will see Biles’ struggles over the last two weeks, and her willingness to open up about them has certainly endeared her to others who are suffering.
Some people remain upset that Biles did not compete in all six events as scheduled in Tokyo—ostensibly unsympathetic to the pressures placed on athletes to perform at increasingly higher, and for gymnasts, more dangerous—levels. But Elzie said marketers can’t worry about having a universal consensus on an endorsee. “We live in such a divided time, [a company] can’t be driven by that,” she said. “As a brand, [you] want to focus on the core audience, and there is a core group of people that will connect with her and who her message will resonate with.”