Team USA gymnast Sunisa Lee took home the gold medal in the women’s all-around on Thursday, a victory that some marketers say could come with a seven-figure financial windfall for the 18-year-old star, who just shot her marketability into the stratosphere. With her masterful gold medal performance amid a whirlwind of attention and emotion caused by Simone Biles’ withdrawal, Lee now moves into the role of America’s newest face of the Games.
“She’s a million dollar baby,” Vince Thompson, founder and CEO of sports and marketing agency MELT, said in an interview. “She’s out of central casting. If you look at the setup of the story—the greatest of all time bows out and she steps in, wins the gold, gives hopes and dreams to every little girl in America—she represents hope and aspiration, and that’s massively valuable. She is the holy grail of consumers, the target for nearly every marketer in America. It’s a dream scenario.”
It’s not just the medal that makes her marketable, though, but the pedestal on which fans have long put top U.S. gymnasts—from Mary Lou Retton to Nastia Liukin to Gabby Douglas to Biles.
“[Lee is] now the new America’s sweetheart,” Thompson added. “How do you put a price tag on that?”
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee puts a $37,500 sticker on a gold medal, which Lee will take home alongside $22,500 for the silver she helped Team USA earn in the team event and any other prize money she may earn for making the podium in the individual events. But her impending haul off the mat is actually worth much more. Rick Burton, Syracuse University professor and former chief marketing officer of the USOPC, also puts Lee’s immediate earnings in the million dollar range. Longer term, her gold is even more valuable.
Lee’s win in the all-around could be leveraged for as much as $10 million over the young athlete’s lifetime, Burton said. That’s not limited to endorsement deals, though he’s sure whoever ends up representing Lee will capitalize on those. She will also rake in appearance and speaking fees for years to come, as she emerges as the Olympic movement’s next “It Girl,” a title he says American gymnasts have taken on after successful Summer Games since Retton won gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“There’s almost always someone who emerges as the fresh new face of the Olympic Games, and it is almost always a female,” Burton said. “That’s not to discount Michael Phelps and some of the other great athletes that have been a part of the Olympics, but I anticipate that she will become very visible and very popular. Everyone had been expecting Simone to win, and [Lee] stepped up. America loves champions, but they especially love meeting new celebrities, who emerged against difficult odds.”
Burton also noted that as an Asian American athlete, Lee also embodies diversity—a valuable attribute to marketers today. Brands that want to work with Lee in the immediate aftermath of Tokyo will pay a premium due to her demand, which means cash in her pocket and continued visibility that Burton said “creates a sustainable revenue stream” for Lee’s future.
“She’s forever an Olympian and forever a gold medalist in the tradition of all the great female athletes of past Olympics,” Burton said.
Thompson echoed many of the same sentiments, adding that perhaps joining Biles on her sponsor-supported, post-Tokyo “Gold Over America Tour” could put Lee to an even stronger earning position.
The St. Paul, Minn., native has committed to attend Auburn University. And while the incoming freshman may now decide to forgo the NCAA ranks, as many Olympians do—Biles had verbally committed to UCLA before the 2016 Olympics, eventually opting to instead turn pro—Lee no longer has to choose between endorsement deals and college eligibility. Recent changes to name, image and likeness rules now allow Division I NCAA athletes to monetize their marketability. It’s worth noting that had the Tokyo Games happened last summer as planned, that wouldn’t have been the case. If she does still opt to go to Auburn, INFLCR CEO Jim Cavale said the star will arrive “with a massive head start” in terms of social media endorsement deal opportunities in the NIL era.
Regardless of where her career continues, marketers expect sponsors to line up to work with Lee the way they did for Biles back in 2016.
In the wake of her four-gold-medal performance at the Olympic Games in Rio, Biles built a robust sponsorship portfolio. The superstar gymnast now earns several million dollars a year off the mat from sponsors, including Athleta (after several years as a Nike athlete), Visa, United Airlines, Oreo and Core Power protein shakes.
Thompson said he could see Lee following in Biles’ footsteps, signing with a brand like Gap-owned Athleta or Canadian athleisure company Lululemon. Other more traditional Olympics sponsors, like Procter and Gamble or the Coca-Cola Company and their family of brands (Coke now owns Core Power through its acquisition of the protein shake’s owner, Fairlife LLC), could also be in Lee’s future. Burton throws Visa in the ring as well, noting that with only a three-year turnaround to the Paris Games in 2024, where Lee could again compete, she’s an even more attractive partner for Olympic sponsors.